Body & Fitness

Young at heart

Teach your kids heart-healthy habits that will last them for a lifetime

It’s hard to imagine your little darling ever having problems with their heart, but many adults who now struggle with heart disease were children when they learned the habits that contributed to their condition.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in New Zealand, accounting for 40% of deaths annually, and approximately one in two New Zealanders are obese or overweight.

So why not help your child live a life free of heart disease by instilling lifestyle habits that promote heart health? Here are some tips:

  • Involve your children in food preparation, starting with their school lunches. Plan the “top 10” sandwich fillings together and put the list on the fridge. You can also talk about having items in their lunchboxes from each of the four food groups: bread and cereals; dairy; fruit and veges; and meat or protein.

  • Encourage kids to help make the lunches – they can wrap some carrot sticks or put raisins in a pottle while you get the sandwich sorted.

  • When you are shopping for groceries, talk to your kids about the labels on their favourite foods and teach them how to work out if it is healthy or not. As a guide, low-fat usually means 3g of fat per 100g of food or 1.5g per 100ml of liquid. For some good links on understanding food labels, go to and type “reading food labels” into the search bar.

  • Play the “swap” game with foods. If your child swapped a packet of potato chips for a packet of popcorn, how much healthier would that be? Would rice crackers and hummus be better than sweet biscuits? Sit down and read the labels with your children to work it out.

  • Draw up a list of a treats and rewards with your children and keep it somewhere safe. Treats could include making a kite and flying it, going to the river or beach and collecting stones or shells, a trip to the local park, or 10 minutes extra play outside. Help your children to realise that treats don’t have to be food.

  • Make exercise fun. Children will gladly exercise all day if you call it play rather than exercise and don’t make them do it. Simple changes like walking to school with them, taking them to the local park for softball practice on a summer’s evening or going for an afternoon swim are all great ways to combine having fun with getting those hearts pumping.

  • Get growing. oost kids need little encouragement to get out in the garden and start digging so help them plant foods that grow quickly, such as lettuces. In summer, beans and peas are full of flavour when picked straight from the garden and eaten raw. This teaches your child where healthy food comes from and is great fun too. If you don’t have space for a garden, grow a few plants in a large container.

  • Water and milk (kids over two can have reduced-fat milk, those under two should have the full-fat kind) are the best drinks to offer instead of juice or soft drinks, but you need to make them interesting. Have the kids make ice cubes with fruit in them – such as grapes, strawberries or tinned peaches – and pop a few cubes of fruity ice into their drinks. Children will enjoy watching them melt – and they’ll be learning a little science at the same time. You can also freeze bottles of water to pop in their lunchboxes. By lunchtime, the water will be melted but still icy-cold.

  • Set limits on sedentary activities like watching TV. Encourage kids to play outside or go for a bike ride with a friend. Encourage your child to take up an after-school or weekend sport. If you make the emphasis on having fun and being part of a team, they are more likely to get involved.

  • Set a good example by packing yourself a healthy lunch, drinking water with meals and exercising regularly. The Heart Foundation has some great advice and tips for parents on their website. Visit and click on Education.

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