American Heart Month: Engage in Heart-Healthy Habits in School and at Home

Written by Patty Kestell, SHAPE America 2013 National Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year

It’s February — what comes to mind? Valentine’s Day, chocolates and celebrating with the one you love? February is also recognized as American Heart Month — a time to remember our commitment to ourselves to stay heart healthy. It’s estimated that close to 1 million lives are lost annually due to cardiovascular disease. How can we engage the children in our lives to take a proactive role in maintaining a healthy heart? Many physical educators, like myself, get the opportunity to build awareness of the importance of cardiovascular health and disease prevention at school, through the national Jump Rope For Heart and Hoops For Heart programs (JRFH/HFH).

JRFH and HFH are longtime educational fund development programs developed jointly by SHAPE America and the American Heart Association (AHA). Since their inception in the 1970s, JRFH and HFH have grown from a few hundred kids to millions! I can’t emphasize enough how the programs provide such valuable teaching activities and resources to educate students on heart disease and prevention, how to identify a cardiac emergency, what should be done to help save a life, and the critical role physical activity and healthy eating play in prevention. Through the programs’ fundraising component, students learn about giving back to the community.

I’ve been running the JRFH/HFH program in my school for 12 years and on the state level in Wisconsin for six years. I can see the direct benefits these events have had. Several years ago, our whole school jumped in honor of Andrew, a kindergarten student who had a medical health issue that triggered five strokes before he was five-years-old. Students recognize what JRFH/HFH and AHA do to help people like Andrew get the care they need and the impact they are making. Andrew is now a fourth grader and while he still deals with complications from his health issue, he knows he has a wonderful support system within his school community!


               Patty Kestell with students Andrew and Sydney. 

How can families keep the messages going strong at home?

  • Does your family schedule annual checkups at the doctor?
  • Are your kids active outside of the school day? As an adult, do you take time out to include physical activity in your own life?
  • What lessons are you passing on to the children in your life about physical activity and healthy eating? Sixty minutes of physical activity per day is the national recommendation for children. SHAPE America has a wealth of resources to encourage more movement at home. Check out their Heart Month resource page for activity ideas!
  • Does your family have a history of heart disease? If so, do you have a plan in case of an emergency? Is anyone in your family certified in CPR and/or the use of an AED?

Check if your school has a Cardiac Emergency Response Plan in place

Two years ago, a fifth-grade student of mine suffered sudden cardiac arrest and passed away at his home. This could have easily happened while at school.

Schools can establish a Cardiac Emergency Response Plan, or CERP.  A CERP is a written plan that outlines specific steps to take should a cardiac emergency happen in a school setting. It’s important to proactively establish, review and maintain the plan annually. SHAPE America has a free CERP that schools can customize, along with action steps, drills, and post-evaluation materials schools can use right away.

This Heart Month, I encourage you to connect with the kids in your life and your school community to help ensure heart health remains a priority, not just in February but all year long!

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