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5 heart health tips to keep you and your family healthy

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It’s never too early to start doing what you can to lower heart disease risk. Try these simple strategies with your kids.

Maybe you have heart disease in your family. Or perhaps your doctor has advised you to do more to cut your risk. Whatever the case, heart disease isn’t something to ignore. In fact, it’s the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1

Many factors can increase your chance of developing heart disease. Some of the biggies include high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (aka “bad” cholesterol), obesity and physical inactivity.

The good news? You can form habits that go a long way toward reducing your heart disease risk. And your kids can benefit too. Why not make getting healthy a family affair? Here are 5 heart-healthy strategies to get you started.

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1. Sweat together

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to keep your heart healthy. It’s a good idea for adults to get about 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week. For children and adolescents, it’s at least 60 minutes of daily activity.2 And you don’t need to get it all at once. Even 5- or 10-minute bursts of activity count toward your total.

Try these fun ways to get moving:

  • Go on a bike ride with your family.
  • Have a dance party in your living room.
  • Join a water aerobics or power yoga class.
  • Play tennis or pickleball.
  • Shoot baskets at the playground with your kids.
  • Take a brisk walk in the morning around your neighborhood.

Exercise is good for your heart’s health for several reasons, says Louis Gleckel, MD. He’s chief of cardiology at Optum in Lake Success, New York. Exercise helps:

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Lower your blood sugar if you have diabetes or prediabetes
  • Lower your obesity risk
  • Cut your chance of stroke

2. Have more family meals

When life gets busy, you may find yourself turning to fast food a few times a week. Or perhaps you have a picky eater or two in your home. That might mean you serve the same meals over and over, even if they aren’t the most nutritious choices.

But many takeout foods and prepackaged meals are full of fat and salt. That’s not great for your heart in the long run.3,4 Plus, cooking at home can be easy. Stock your kitchen with the makings of some quick, healthy meals. Have items such as these at the ready:

  • Chicken breasts
  • Eggs
  • Frozen shrimp
  • Legumes (such as beans, chickpeas and lentils)
  • Precut vegetables
  • Salmon
  • Whole grains

Sitting down for a meal together can also be good for your health. In fact, sharing a meal with your family for just 20 minutes 3 to 5 times a week is linked to healthier eating.5 Can’t do weeknight dinners because of competing schedules? No worries. It’s just about coming together when you can. That may be breakfast before school or sharing a healthy evening snack.

Up your healthy-eating game with some of these approaches:

  • Get your kids involved in meal prep. They’ll be more excited to eat something they’ve helped prepare.
  • Get the conversation going. Make a rule: No phones at the table. (These conversation starters can help.)
  • Try Meatless Mondays. Cutting back on red meat is one way to improve heart health.6 Find some tasty vegetarian or vegan recipes as a family.

It’s important to make healthy food choices. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still go out to dinner on occasion. “Choose fish and vegetables, and pass on the dessert,” suggests Dr. Gleckel. “Menu options that are lower in fat and with less added sugar are heart-smart choices.”

3. Embrace a sleep routine

Yes, it’s a good idea to have a wind-down routine before you get into bed at night. This is important for adults as well as kids. Try going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning.

Keep these healthy-sleep suggestions in mind:

  • Check with your child’s pediatrician. Make sure your kids are getting the right amount of sleep for their age and activity level.
  • Adults ages 18 to 64 need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.  Adults 65 and over need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep a night.7
  • Limit your family’s use of devices such as phones and TVs before bedtime. 8
  • Avoid going to bed on a full stomach. It makes digestion difficult and can affect your sleep, says Dr. Gleckel.

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4. Sit less during the day

Whether you work from home or in an office, you do a lot of sitting. It might not be so obvious, but sitting for long periods of time can be bad for your health.

Your body wasn’t designed to sit for 4 to 8 hours at a time without stretching or moving, notes Dr. Gleckel. In fact, sitting too long can lead to:

  • Burning fewer calories
  • Losing muscle
  • Muscle fatigue

These issues can also lead to more serious health conditions such as high blood pressure, unbalanced blood sugar levels and obesity.

So how can you stay active during the workday? If you sit at a desk for most of the day, make sure you’re active in the morning before work. And take afternoon breaks away from your desk. For example, do a few laps around the house or go for a stroll outside.

Exercise is also a great way to spend time with older adults in your family. The CDC recommends the following exercise guidelines for adults who are 65 and up:9

  • Get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. (For example, 30 minutes of brisk walking, 5 days a week.)
  • Focus on muscle strengthening at least twice weekly.
  • Work on balance 3 times every week. Standing on one foot is a great way to improve balance.

Keep children moving too. Kids naturally want to run around a lot during the day, explains Dr. Gleckel. But recently, kids have been less active. Many school systems are cutting back on physical education programs and recess. And, of course, there are all those screens.

Kids between the ages of 11 and 14 spend about 9 hours per day in front of screens.8 So make sure you set screen time boundaries. And follow them.

“Lack of movement for children can cause childhood obesity, which can give an early start to heart disease,” says Dr. Gleckel.

5. Focus on maintaining or reaching a healthy weight

Aiming to stay at a healthy weight is good for your heart. But it’s not just about a number on a scale. Heart disease risk also has a lot to do with belly fat.

“High levels of belly fat can lead to a higher risk of heart disease,” says Dr. Gleckel. Belly fat has proven to be a predictor of heart-related death. So it’s important to watch yours with your doctor.

Getting to a healthy weight and trimming belly fat start in the kitchen. Try to cut back on these foods:

  • Many cereals, pastries, white bread and white rice
  • Fruit juice, soda and energy drinks

Instead, go for these:

  • Fruits, such as apples and pears
  • Lean proteins
  • Vegetables, especially leafy greens
  • Whole grains, such as whole wheat and barley

Staying active and exercising regularly can also help keep your belly fat in check, notes Dr. Gleckel.

If you’re worried about your child’s weight, talk to your pediatrician. Remember, when you make healthy changes as a family, you’ll have an easier time sticking to them.

Bottom line: Following these tips can improve your heart health. It can also help with your family’s heart health. But the key is to start small.

Try eating 1 meatless meal a week. Then add in a 30-minute walk over your lunch break. And set a time every evening when you all log off your screens. Then work your way up from there. Your heart will thank you. 

SOURCES

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease Facts. Last reviewed October 14, 2022. Accessed February 10, 2023.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do adults need? Last revised June 2, 2022. Accessed January 18, 2023.
  3. American Heart Association. How much sodium should I eat per day? Last revised November 1, 2021. Accessed January 26, 2023.
  4. American Heart Association. What about eating out? Published 2020. Accessed January 26, 2023.
  5. American Heart Association. Meal planning: Benefits & how-to’s of family dinners. Last revised April 26, 2018. Accessed January 17, 2023.
  6. American Heart Association. Picking Healthy Proteins. Last revised November 1, 2021. Accessed February 10, 2023.
  7. National Sleep Foundation. Sleep by the numbers. Last revised May 12, 2021. Accessed January 17, 2023.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Screen time vs. lean time infographic. Last reviewed January 29, 2018. Accessed January 24, 2023.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do older adults need? Last revised June 3, 2022. Accessed February 10, 2023.

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