DALLAS, August 22, 2023 — As summer wraps up and kids head back to the classrooms, it’s important to recognize how young people spend their free time could impact their heart health, according to the American Heart Association, the world’s leading nonprofit organization focused on heart and brain health for all. Too much screen time and unhealthy on-the-go eating habits could make for some hard lessons in poor heart health in the future.
In a 2022 study in the journal Circulation, researchers reported that most children and adolescents in the U.S. scored poorly for overall cardiovascular health. Less than 30% of kids ages 2 to 19 met high healthy heart standards according to American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8 metrics that define levels of heart health based on diet, physical activity, cigarette smoking, body mass index, total cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose and quality of sleep. The study showed that heart health decreased considerably as kids got older, with high cardiovascular health reported in:
- 56% of two-to-five-year-olds;
- 33% of six-to 11-year-olds; and
- 14% of 12-to-19 year-olds.
Overall, kids were experiencing higher body mass index, increased blood pressure and eating less nutritious foods, all risk factors for poor heart health. Obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, continues to be a major public health threat for children in all age groups, and, according to the American Heart Association’s 2023 Heart and Stroke Statistical Update has nearly quadrupled from about 5% in the 1970s to 14.5% in 2020. At the same time, school aged children are surrounded by entertainment from video games on their smartphones to shows on television. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they spend between six and nine hours in front of screens each day, reducing time being physically active.
“Our habits in adulthood begin in childhood, and we know that a sedentary lifestyle that’s spent in front of screens and not being outside, having fun with friends and being physically active puts children at a variety of health risks,” said Federico Asch, M.D., a volunteer member of the American Heart Association’s Science Advisory and Coordinating Committee, a cardiologist at MedStar Health and a professor of medicine at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “Once the school year starts, kids tend to have less free time and may navigate toward less active habits such as watching TV and playing video games. This is especially true as kids get older and no longer have scheduled gym classes or recess and don’t take part in organized or school sports.”
Federal guidelines recommend children and teens ages 6 to 17 get at least an hour of moderate to vigorous activity a day, including more intense activities at least three times a week.
Healthy eating is also important for growing kids. Once the busy school year starts, many may skip breakfast in the morning and if the family doesn’t have a scheduled mealtime, they may be grabbing unhealthy snacks on the go after school and munching on junk food while engaging in that screen time in the evenings.
Even sleep can significantly impact a child’s health. Adequate sleep promotes healing, improves brain function and reduces the risk for chronic diseases. Children require more sleep than adults, with recommendations for kids including:
- 10-16 hours for ages 5 and younger, including naps;
- 9-12 hours for ages 6-12;
- and 8-10 hours for ages 13-18.
The American Heart Association suggests a few tips for helping keep kids heart-healthy:
- Schedule family time for physical activity. Weather permitting, go outdoors for a walk, a hike or even just some backyard games. Indoor activities can actually incorporate active screentime, like playing a dance-off or interactive sports video game.
- Plan a weekly menu and prep your meals. Encourage kids to help with meal planning and even grocery shopping. Make sure you have on hand foods they will eat that are also healthy for them. Taking the time to prepare for the week ahead – even cutting up fruits and veggies for healthy snacks – can help improve overall diets.
- Simplify your family’s schedule. In today’s society we’re expected to do it all. But this type of non-stop lifestyle isn’t sustainable or healthy. Try prioritizing your activities and see what you can do without so you’ll have more time for the things that matter. You can also work on ways to manage stress.
- Set a regular bed time – and wake-up time. Develop bedtime routines to wind down after a busy day. While it may be unrealistic to expect older kids to turn in early, have them to turn off their phones and other devices prior to bedtime. Encourage them to develop their own rituals for a good night’s sleep – and trying to catch up on the weekends doesn’t count.
- Live by example. Be a role model for healthy behaviors. It doesn’t mean you have to change-up everything at once, set goals and take baby steps. Teaching your kids about heart health now will help them live longer, healthier lives for their own future.
“It can be a challenge for busy working parents to find ways to keep their kids active and help them develop healthy habits. We know lifelong heart health begins in childhood, so it’s important to make the effort,” Asch said. “Switch off the TV and limit video game time and instead go outside to toss a ball or take a walk. Schedule regular family dinner time as often as possible and encourage your kids to help in the meal planning. Simple steps can make a big difference and will set them up for a lifetime of good health.”
Learn more about the importance of heart health at heart.org.
- Multimedia is available on right column of release link
- Spanish news release
- AHA health infographic: Kids Physical and Mental Health Infographic
- AHA health inforgraphic: 25 Ways To Get Moving At Home
- AHA health information: Dietary Recommendations for Health Children
- AHA health information: 3 Tips for Better Sleep Infographic
- AHA health information: Together Tuesday
- AHA health information: NFL Play 60
- Follow AHA/ASA news on X (formerly known as Twitter) @HeartNews
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