Child’s Play: Physical Activity In Preschool May Influence Heart Health In Adulthood

HAMILTON, Ontario — It’s hard for most of us to remember our preschool days at all, let alone recount how physically active we may have been. Of course, fitness isn’t exactly a top priority among parents, teachers, and kids alike in these early days of childhood. However, according to a recent study, perhaps it should begin to be considered more seriously.

Researchers from McMaster University say that physical activity during very early childhood may impact heart and cardiovascular health decades down the line. After tracking hundreds of preschoolers’ fitness levels over multiple years, they found that physical activity in kids as young as three years old can improve blood vessel functioning, cardiovascular health, and prevent early indicators of heart disease later in adulthood.

“Many of us tend to think cardiovascular disease hits in older age, but arteries begin to stiffen when we are very young,” explains lead author Nicole Proudfoot, a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University, in a release. “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.”

Over three years, more than 400 children between the ages of three and five were tracked. During this observation period, key heart health markers were recorded and analyzed by the research team, including blood pressure, arterial stiffness, and overall cardiovascular fitness.

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Each child’s cardiovascular health was measured by observing how long they could walk on a treadmill, and how quickly their heart rates returned to normal after ceasing exercise. Arterial stiffness was measured by how fast their pulse traveled throughout their body, and ultrasounds were also used to calculate carotid artery stiffness.

Physical activity levels were measured, year over year, by annually asking each child to wear an accelerometer for a full week. This facilitated researchers to ascertain how active each child was on a day to day basis.

Everyone’s blood vessels gradually stiffen over time, but the study’s authors determined that children who are more active see a slower stiffening process in comparison to preschool age children who are more docile. More active children also exhibited superior treadmill endurance, and their heart rates returned to normal faster. Additionally, the results indicate that while any physical activity has a positive effect on young children’s cardiovascular health, especially intense exercise is that much more beneficial.

“This research suggests that intensity matters,” says research supervisor Brian Timmons, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at McMaster and the Canada Research Chair in Child Health & Exercise Medicine. “Children benefit the most from energetic play, which means getting out of breath by playing games such as tag. And the more, the better.”

Professor Timmons adds that physical activity for young children doesn’t have to all be at once, which is often the case nowadays for adults who are usually inactive all day until a burst of activity at the gym. Instead, for preschool age kids, activity should occur throughout the day.

For the most part, the study’s results were consistent among both boys and girls, except for the observation that only girls’ blood pressure was positively influenced by physical activity.

“We know physical activity is key to cardiovascular health, but these findings point to the protective effects it can have very early in life,” says co-investigator Maureen MacDonald, dean of the Faculty of Science at McMaster. “In future, we hope to examine if these beneficial effects of physical activity on heart health indicators in early childhood carry on into later childhood and eventually adulthood.”

The study is published in the scientific journal Pediatrics.

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