As adults, we've heard countless times that exercise is good for the heart. Regular exercise lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke by dropping blood pressure, reducing stress, lowering the risk of diabetes and helping to keep off extra pounds.
Many people get serious about exercise only when they learn they have high blood pressure, or after a heart attack. However, a new study shows that exercise makes a notable difference in heart health for children as young as 8 years old.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in America and the No. 2 killer here in Contra Costa. We have known since the Vietnam War that heart disease starts early in life. When doctors examined the blood vessels of young soldiers who died in battle, they found plaques, or buildups of fatty material in the walls of blood vessels. This was a surprise at the time, because most people who have heart attacks are in their 50s and older. We now know that plaques start out small, but they grow in size over the years. When high blood pressure slams into plaques, they can burst open and block arteries supplying the heart, causing a heart attack.
Exercise and quitting smoking are the best way to prevent heart attacks. A study in Acta Paediatrica from May 2011 proved that exercise protects the hearts of kids as young as age 8. Scientists in Sweden and Denmark studied 223 children, aged 8 to 11 years old. For four days, each child wore a monitor that measured how much and how fast the child was moving. The scientists also measured each child's blood pressure, heart rate, body fat and oxygen use during exercise. These four risks for heart disease were combined into a number called a "composite risk factor score," and the score was compared to how much exercise was done. What the scientists found was remarkable: children who did less exercise had a risk factor score that was 10% higher.
On one hand, these results aren't a surprise. We learned about early heart disease in soldiers in their teens and twenties, so it makes sense that heart disease could be present in schoolchildren. On the other hand, these results are shocking! As a physician, I have never worried about the hearts of second-graders. And most parents are concerned about homework, not heart health. However, we now have real evidence that exercise is important for everyone, not just people who already have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
So what should we take away from this study? Start early and be active as a family. Chasing kids around the playground is great exercise for everyone. If mom is going on a walk, the kids can bike along with her. Contra Costa County has many beautiful parks, where families can walk and bike. Sports are fun for kids, and parents can coach or help the team. Dancing is also a good way to be active. There are dance classes for kids and adults offered through local recreation departments.
I recommend 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week for adults, and 60 minutes of activity a day for kids. So get out there and get moving!
Dr. Goheen practices family medicine at the Concord Health Center.
Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
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