Want a healthy adult heart? Get moving early, researchers say
The amount of physical activity a child undertakes in the early years may have an impact on cardiovascular health down the line, researchers from Canada’s McMaster University have found.
In conducting their research, scientists followed the activity levels of hundreds of preschool age children over an extended period, finding that physical activity in children as young as three years old benefits blood vessel health and cardiovascular fitness, and is key to the prevention of early risk indicators that can lead to adult heart disease.
The Health outcomes and physical activity in preschoolers study was recently published in the Pediatrics journal, and is the first to demonstrate the benefits of physical activity on blood vessel health in preschoolers.
Nicole Proudfoot, lead author, challenged the perception that cardiovascular disease is something that affects people in older age, noting that stiffening of the arteries happens much earlier than many people believe.
“It’s important to start any kind of preventative measures early. We need to ensure small children have many opportunities to be active to keep their hearts and blood vessels as healthy as possible,” she said.
More than 400 children aged between three and five were involved in the study, which measured and analysed three key health markers – cardiovascular fitness, arterial stiffness and blood pressure – over a period of three years.
Researchers calculated cardiovascular fitness by measuring how long the children could last on a treadmill test and how fast their heart rates recovered after exercise. They measured arterial stiffness by how fast their pulse travelled through their body and used ultrasound imaging to measure the stiffness of the carotid artery. They also measured blood pressure.
They tracked physical activity each year by having the children wear an accelerometer around their waist for one week, allowing researchers to determine the amount and intensity of their activity each day.
Through the study, researchers determined that while arteries stiffen over time, the process is slower in young children who have been more active. Those children also showed more endurance on the treadmill, suggesting they had better cardiovascular fitness, and their heart rates came down faster after exercise. While the findings showed total physical activity had favourable effects on cardiovascular health, more intense physical activity was more beneficial.
Intensity, research supervisor Brian Timmons said, definitely plays a part in determining overall heart health. “Children benefit the most from energetic play, which means getting out of breath by playing games such as tag. And the more, the better.”
He noted that physical activity does not have to occur in blocks of time, suggesting that children are offered multiple opportunities throughout the day to engage in active play.
The study may be accessed here, for further reference.