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The Kid’s Doctor: Exercise is essential to heart health for kids and adults

Moms and dads, you may have an exercise plan to keep you at the top of your game, but what about your kids? Children’s heart health is important, too. Heart health is based primarily on genetics, diet and exercise. I also discuss smoking and drinking as risk factors for both young people and adults.

While I start talking about healthy eating during infancy, discussing exercise comes a bit later. If you have a toddler, you know they “exercise” all day long and never stop except to sleep. But as children get older, it’s up to the parents to motivate and model behavior, including exercise.

I regularly ask parents of my patients: “How much time does your child spend playing outside?” (I realize this is tougher in winter months.) “What does your child do for exercise outside of school?” and “Do you exercise as a family?”

Once a child is older, say 5 or so, I include them in the discussion, as they offer a wealth of information. If I ask, “Do you ride a bike?” they love to tell me about taking off their training wheels. When I ask, “Who do you ride with and where do you go?” I also get lots of feedback. I also ask about bike helmets, and it’s amazing how many children tell me they wear a helmet, but their parents don’t. (Hint, hint!)

I find that most children under age 10 or so do get a fair amount of exercise, but as they get older many stop playing sports – organized or otherwise – outside of school and become more sedentary. They’re not just watching TV, but may have other less active interests like music, art, drama, chess and computer programming.

All of that is great, but children still need regular exercise. Unfortunately, many schools have cut physical education programs, especially once kids reach middle school and high school. That means that parents once again may have to encourage exercise for the whole family. Walking the dog, family bike rides and hikes, tennis matches, front yard kickball or badminton are good choices. When family members exercise together, they may not even think about the healthy advantages of their “workouts.” The activity is simply fun.

I have the most trouble encouraging exercise among teen patients who are just not athletes. I can sympathize. We all have our talents, but for some, sports is not a favorite activity. When I ask teens how much exercise they get, many say, “None” or something like, “walking between classes.” For most, walking to school is a thing of the past.

As a result, many of my teens start gaining weight after puberty. They have to be reminded that we all stop growing at some point, and without exercise and changes in diet, they’ll keep packing on the pounds. Making regular exercise part of their lifestyle is key.

Heart health should be a focus for families year round. As spring finally takes hold, see if you can get your family moving!

Dr. Sue Hubbard is a pediatrician, medical editor and media host. Submit questions at