My 5-year-old daughter reminds me a lot of my dad: She charms both friends and strangers with her warmth and humor, she considers pickles the perfect complement to any meal and she gleefully listens to the same songs over and over again. While I love seeing my father’s wonderful, quirky qualities in my daughter, I also worry. Along with the good, I fear she may inherit the bad. I’m OK if, like my dad, she overindulges in cologne or exaggerates my accomplishments to her friends, but I’m not OK if she ends her life as he did his: in an intensive care unit at age 67, hooked up to life-support equipment as a result of a failing body that could not sustain a failing heart.
While there is no changing the genetic code that may predispose my daughter to heart disease, she can certainly embrace lifestyle choices that could offset it. This is also true for my other daughter; although she’s off the hook in terms of my family’s genetics because she’s adopted, who knows what lurks in her biological family tree?
So, along with everything else in my job description as a mom, it’s my responsibility to put them both on the right track in terms of heart health. A challenge to be sure, since most parenting experts would agree that it pays to lead by example, and my example isn’t always good. Not only am I the daughter of a sedentary, cholesterol-loving parent, I often am one. Bad habits, like bad genes do get passed on. Fortunately, I married a guy who, unlike my dad, enjoys being active, tries to eat healthful foods and visits his doctor regularly. He gives me the kick in the butt that I need to get off the couch, and together, we attempt to instill heart-healthy behavior in our children as we weave them into our own lives. Here are a few things we do:
Incorporate exercise into family activities. Our oldest daughter began hiking with us before she could walk and now can easily hike three miles in hilly terrain with minimal whining. In the colder months, we try to hit a forest preserve just to get our bodies moving and hearts beating. And while my husband is certainly more the biker than I am, we manage a few family bike trips each year outside of Chicago and take advantage of family biking activities in the city, whether it’s a bike parade through our neighborhood or a ride along Chicago’s lakefront.
Encourage physical activities that can be enjoyed throughout the lifespan. Although Irish step dancing may be cute when they’re young, there aren’t many 60-year-olds out there doing it on a regular basis. So when confronted with the huge array of activities my daughters can participate in, we consider whether or not it’s something they can continue to enjoy when they’re older. While ballet, swimming and yoga all get the thumbs up, we might take a pass at something like gymnastics when forced to whittle down the activities list. And the great thing is that most of these activities can be found via our local park district.
Set realistic and — mostly — healthful dietary expectations. I know that I’m never going to be the mom who goes strictly vegetarian or bans all processed foods. And I’ve learned that every time I say “oh, I’d never give my kid that,” I eventually eat my words (note the abundance of juice boxes in my fridge and the “only in emergencies” yogurt-covered fruit snacks in my purse).
So, when it comes to food, we try to keep it both real and healthy. We push the produce at meal and snack times (kids love pretty much anything on a toothpick); limit red meat to once a week or less; regulate junk food and exposure to it (i.e., no television advertising sugary cereals or fast food restaurants), and encourage healthy eating habits (research shows that eating in front of the TV can pack on extra pounds, so we only allow it during certain TV events like the Super Bowl).
Get the kids to sleep. As a mom, I can’t praise the merits of sleep enough. It recharges the kids and it gives me a much-needed break. And since lack of sleep has been associated with heart disease and diabetes, there’s even more motivation to get my kids the rest they need, which is why we put both my kids on a sleep schedule early on and continue to make sure they get to bed by 7:30 p.m.
While these lifestyle choices aren’t revolutionary or original, we hope they will help lead to heart-healthy behavior that will survive everything from teenage rebellions to mid-life crises. And, with a little luck, my kids — unlike my dad — will be around to ride bikes with their grandchildren.
Jill Waite Goldberg is a writer at Rush University Medical Center.