During the month of February, Americans see the human heart as the symbol of love. February is American Heart Month, a time to show yourself and the people around you love for healthy habits and lifestyles. Heart disease is not a major cause of death among children and teenagers, but it is the largest cause of death among adults in the United States. In fact, someone in America dies every 37 seconds from some form of cardiovascular disease

When we think of heart disease or other cardiovascular issues, children aren’t typically the first people that come to mind. There’s a good reason for that: unless a child has a congenital heart defect or some other unusual condition, heart disease tends to develop later in life. And while genetics is certainly a factor for many adult heart disease patients, the simple fact is that most cases are related to a person’s long-term diet and exercise habits.


Children should come to mind when we hear or talk about “long-term habits.” Research clearly shows that attitudes toward food and exercise form early in life, giving adults a better base for a healthier lifestyle and long term effectiveness. A child with a habit of grabbing an apple or carrot instead of chips or cupcakes will probably grow into an apple/carrot eating adult. The same will happen for the child who reaches for a glass of water instead of soda. Likewise, a child who engages regularly in vigorous, active play is less likely to be obese and has a good chance of maintaining good physical fitness throughout life.


It is possible for adults to change their habits and people do make lifelong changes all the time. People also fail frequently in their efforts, because it really is difficult for adults to alter their eating and exercise habits once they are established. Young children, on the other hand, stand an excellent chance of developing good habits, or altering bad ones, as long as the adults in their lives provide appropriate guidance. Remember: children learn most habits by observing the actions of the adults around them. You can tell them to eat an apple all you want, but they will notice if you reach for a bag of chips at snack time. This is where leading or teaching by example is a good practice to have.


Just like any other muscle in the body, the heart is subject to a “use it or lose it” system. Although the heart is one muscle that exercises itself, all day every day, it will never get any stronger if the rest of the body is just sitting there idly all day long. The heart needs a strong daily workout. For children, the daily “heart workout” should include a range of light, moderate, and vigorous activities. In other words, they don’t have to be running at full speed in order to get the exercise they need. Such vigorous play is important, but walking, dancing, and many forms of indoor play provide necessary light to moderate activity.


Heart health is important. We want our hearts to work for us and with us, to help us live a life that is long and enjoyable. By taking care of our children and guiding them down a path to a healthier lifestyle, we are not only helping them get fit and strong each and every day, but we are helping them build a better foundation for their future health.