Two children pillow-fights each other at the park on a summer day (Shutterstock/Zaitsava Olga)
New Canadian research has found that keeping active in childhood, even when as young as three, could help to boost cardiovascular health later in life.
Carried out by researchers at McMaster University, the new study looked at 418 children age three to five.
The team analyzed the children's cardiovascular fitness, arterial stiffness and blood pressure every year over a period of three years and asked the children to wear an accelerometer around their waist for one week each year to track their physical activity levels.
The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, showed that even at age three, physical activity had a positive effect on the children's blood vessel health and cardiovascular fitness, both key factors in preventing adult heart disease, with the researchers observing that while arteries do stiffen over time, the process is slower in young children who have been more active.
The positive effects were seen in both boys and girls, although when looking at blood pressure, physical activity appeared to have a positive influence in girls only.
The study is the first to show that physical activity can boost blood vessel health in preschoolers, with lead author of the study, Nicole Proudfoot, commenting that, "Many of us tend to think cardiovascular disease hits in older age, but arteries begin to stiffen when we are very young."
"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 added.
In addition, the more active children could also run for longer on the treadmill, suggesting they had better cardiovascular fitness, and their heart rates also came down faster after exercise.
Doing more intense physical activity also appeared to bring bigger benefits.
"This research suggests that intensity matters," says Brian Timmons, an associate professor who supervised the research. "Children benefit the most from energetic play, which means getting out of breath by playing games such as tag. And the more, the better."
Timmons adds that physical activity does not have to happen in one go, and that keeping active throughout the day is important.