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Healthy Heart Advice from Cardiologist Moms

  • Find Reasons to Move

    Sharonne Hayes, M.D., has a demanding schedule as director of the Mayo Clinic Women's Heart Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, which leaves scant time for hourlong workouts. So she makes an effort to get her physical activity in shorter increments throughout the day. "Studies show you reap the same health benefits in 10-minute bursts of activity," she says. She shuns the elevator for stairs, and you won't find her cruising the mall parking lot looking for a spot close to the entrance. "I'm an opportunistic exerciser. I fit it in whenever and wherever I can," she says—and so do her kids. This summer Dr. Hayes' 13-year-old son skipped the carpool and rode his bike to swim team practices. In the evening the entire family catches up on favorite TV shows while lifting weights or using cardio machines in their exercise room. "When the kids see my husband and me being active, it inspires them to join in," says Dr. Hayes. "Plus, it's a great way to spend time together as a family."

  • Skip the Kids' Meals

    Slow-cooker meals and dishes prepared on the weekends make it easier for Stephanie Coulter, M.D., associate director of noninvasive cardiology at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston, to get dinner on the table in a hurry during the week. But eating at home isn't always practical when one of her daughters has an evening sporting event. On those nights, the family makes it an occasion by dining at a restaurant, not a fast-food joint. Her 11- and 9-year-old girls will split a salad and grilled chicken from the adult menu. "I steer the girls away from the kids' meals, which are usually fried and loaded with fat, calories and salt," says Dr. Coulter. "Having them share the generally healthier adult entree is a smarter, and often more economical, way to go."

  • Buy Farm-Fresh Fare

    Once a week Rita Redberg, M.D., director of women's cardiovascular services at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco, and her family receive a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with occasional eggs, meats and dairy products, from local farmers via a community supported agriculture program (CSA). "We get seasonal produce that's bursting with great taste and nutrients, yet low in pesticides and other additives," she says. There are more than 1,000 CSA programs nationwide and those numbers keep growing. (If one's not available in your area, Dr. Redberg suggests patronizing your local farmers' markets instead.) Her daughters actually look forward to seeing what new or unusual veggies are included in the weekly CSA package.

  • Part Ways with Some Family Traditions

    Ileana Pina, M.D., has always cooked meals her daughter Victoria loves. But what Dr. Pina, professor of medicine and cardiology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, serves isn't exactly what you'd find in her family's homeland of Cuba. "Traditional dishes are heavy on starchy vegetables and fatty meats like salt pork and bacon. I make things healthier by loading up on different veggies, using less fatty meats like lean chicken or turkey bacon and cooking with olive oil," says Dr. Pina. "Just about any meal can be made better for you—and still taste great—with the right substitutions." Because Dr. Pina's family has a history of high blood pressure and heart disease (her father died from a heart attack at age 43), both she and Victoria are careful about their salt intake. "I prefer to season foods with spices, garlic and onions," she says. And to avoid any unnecessary temptation she now stores the salt shaker in the pantry rather than smack-dab in the center of the dining table.

  • Help Your Picky Eater

    If it were up to the daughter of Jennifer Mieres, M.D., chicken fingers would be on the menu every night and veggies would be outlawed. "I've talked to Zoe one-on-one and spoken at her school about how food choices affect heart health, but it's still tough," says Dr. Mieres, director of nuclear cardiology at New York University School of Medicine. To keep the dinner table from becoming a battleground, Dr. Mieres allows Zoe to choose her meals, but within limits. "I encourage her to at least try some of what we're having." Then she gets to pick from her own menu, which typically includes some protein options (roasted turkey or grilled chicken), carbs (whole wheat pasta or soba noodles), vegetables (edamame and carrots are tolerable) and fruits (apples, kiwis or pears). Dessert is usually low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt—but Zoe's only allowed to have some if she's eaten at least three servings of fruit or vegetables that day.

  • Be a Role Model

    No one in the family of Karol E. Watson, M.D., can afford to be a couch potato: Her grandmother died in her 50s from heart disease and her father had his first heart attack at 59. "I don't want this to be my destiny or my children's," Dr. Watson says. "Kids tend to become inactive during their teens and remain sedentary as adults. And it's in adolescence when problems with weight gain and diabetes arise," says the codirector of preventive cardiology at University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine.

    "Doing something physical every day is as important as buckling up," Dr. Watson says. She uses herself as an example, squeezing exercise into her jam-packed days. She's a big fan of family walks and bike rides. Her husband plays in an adult basketball league and coaches some of the kids' sports teams. "If your children don't see you making physical activity a priority," Dr. Watson says, "then it will never be important to them either."

    Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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