10 Tips for Involving Your Family in a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle

By James M. Rippe

Pursuing good health and preventing heart disease is most successful when it’s a family affair. Whether you are just starting your family, in the midst of raising your children, exploring the newfound freedoms of empty nesters, or enjoying an extended family as grandparents, these ten pointers provide useful ideas you can adapt to your needs and situation.

Start early

Health habits start in childhood. Active children usually become active adults. Children who learn to like a variety of nutritious foods and develop heart-healthy eating patterns typically follow those patterns as they grow into adults. Here are some suggestions:

  • Start introducing a variety of vegetables and fruits to children when they start eating solid foods. When they graduate from strained or pureed foods, continue to introduce a variety of healthful foods.

  • Play actively with young children indoors and out.

Model healthful behaviors

Children are natural copycats. Children who see parents (and older siblings) eating nutritious foods and being active are likely to copy those behaviors. Parents and older siblings can make a point to include younger members in outdoor activities and games and to take time to play with younger children doing the things they like best. Grandparents can also use these strategies.

Eat together

Children and adults who eat family dinners together tend to have better nutrient intakes and to eat more fruits and vegetables and other nutritious foods. Family members, particularly youth, tend to have better weight control.

Play together

Getting adequate physical activity and exercise throughout the lifespan is one of the two most important things anyone can do for heart health and lifelong well-being. The earlier you start, the better. Active children tend to grow into active adults. Regular exercise helps everyone maintain a healthy weight and build strong muscles and bones.

Activity helps control cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin resistance (prediabetes) — all risk factors for heart disease. In short, being physically active in childhood and thereafter, as the saying goes, adds years to your life and life to your years.

Limit screen time

Recommended TV viewing time for children over age 2 and up through adulthood is just one to two hours daily. Yet, on average, children in the United States watch three hours of TV daily. When other screen time, such as playing video games, surfing the Internet, or doing homework on the computer, is added in, average screen time rises to five to seven hours a day!

Too much screen time is associated with a greater risk of overweight and obesity, irregular or inadequate sleep, and increased risk, in children, of attention problems, anxiety, and depression. More screen time typically means less physical activity.

Involve children in making meals and planning activities

It’s never too early to start learning to make healthy choices and to begin developing the skills you need to carry out those choices. When it comes to trying new foods or dishes, for example, younger children are more likely to be receptive to trying foods that they have helped pick out in the grocery or to eat a food that they have helped make.

Children are active by nature. Just think about the difficulty a 2-year-old (who is not sleepy) has sitting still. Structurally, the human body is designed to be in motion much of the time. Staying in motion is not a problem, either, when you are doing something you enjoy. So start early by engaging children in deciding what activities the family should do.

Get plenty of sleep

Sleep promotes a healthy immune system. Getting adequate sleep can also improve mood and cognitive function, including memory and learning. Just as important, adequate sleep helps your body function physically. Conversely, sleep deprivation can lower your ability to perform physical tasks safely, and it has been associated in a number of studies with a higher risk of developing health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Support each other

Medical science clearly shows that having adequate social support from family and friends helps people who have had a heart attack recover and helps people who have coronary heart disease manage their health more positively. Research also suggests, however, that having low social support increases the risk of developing heart disease by 1.5 to 2 times, even for healthy individuals.

Social support is a two-way street — you give and you receive. What better place to explore the benefits of sharing positively and supportively than within the family?

Many people also have an important “third place” (beyond family and work) that provides meaning and a community of support in their lives. Such places include faith communities, volunteer groups that benefit the community, sports, garden, hobby, or social clubs or groups, and many more.

Start where you are today

Okay, what if it’s too late to start early with your kids — they’re teens not toddlers? Or what if you are empty nesters? It may sound simplistic, but you start where you — and your family — are. Take one step at a time and add additional steps as you can.

Here are just a few suggestions of the variety of steps you can begin to take to encourage heart-healthy living wherever your family currently is:

  • Add one more family meal.

  • Add one more vegetable to dinner.

  • Take a heart-healthy lunch two days a week rather than eating out every day.

  • Take fruit or nuts rather than chips or a candy bar for a snack.

  • Take a walk as a family one evening after dinner or on a weekend day.

  • Sit down with the whole family and add goals for more activity. Plan an active weekend trip or vacation. Increase these types of steps as you can.

If just you and your spouse or partner are at home, start to listen more actively today to how you can be more supportive. Maybe it’s time to sit down and discuss what you two can do together to help one another and how you can get more enjoyment out of your time together as you practice heart-healthy living.

Never confuse “lapse” with “collapse”

At some point, as you pursue a good health goal, you’ll take an awkward step or fall back into an old practice. The temptation is to give up the effort.

More people fail because they treat a lapse of a week or two as a total collapse and give up. A lapse, however, is temporary. Working for heart health is a cumulative activity for you and each member of the family. So it’s important not to place blame, to accept the occasional lapse, and to just get going again, picking up where you left off.

The single most important reason that individuals and families lapse and collapse is that they try to make too many changes at once. If that happens to you and your family, pause and rethink your goals and make sure that you are building slowly. It takes time to make healthy practices a daily habit.