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The American Heart Association's annual Heart & Stroke Walk now has a regular feature: An obstacle course

PHOTO: MICHAEL CUMMINGS, ANDERSEN CONSTRUCTION - The Andersen Constuction obstace course in the festival area at the 2018 Portland Heart & Stroke Walk in Waterfront Park.

A beloved feature of the Heart & Stroke Walk is the American Ninja-style mini obstacle course for children.

Designed and built every year by volunteers from Andersen Construction, the course also has a serious message: Too many American kids are becoming sedentary screen watchers who live on high-salt and -sugar processed foods. This is a growing problem in not just low-income homes but comfortably-off, blue-collar households such as dominate the construction industry.

The course is designed to not just get little hearts beating but show the older generations the boundless energy of children before the unhealthy lifestyle dominates their bodies.

A team of Andersen Construction project engineers and superintendents designed the course by researching online and interviewing their own children for feedback. The team used donated construction materials, volunteering a few hours here and there during evenings and weekends.

PHOTO: MICHAEL CUMMINGS, ANDERSEN CONSTRUCTION - The Andersen Constuction obstace course in the festival area at the 2018 Portland Heart & Stroke Walk in Waterfront Park.

According to an Andersen spokesperson, "We had to think, 'What obstacles would we want to play on if we were kids attending the Heart Walk?'"

Every obstacle was tested by Andersen employees both for safety, and for quality of fun. The course is set up for two kids to go at once, if they want to race. In previous years kids have been able to run through tires, balance on a zigzag beam made from 4x4s, crawl through sonotubes, climb a rope up a plywood wall and jump over one-inch pipes set at different heights.

Kids love to compete against the clock but so far no one at Andersen has tracked anyone's course completion time. "It's just an activity for kids to enjoy," said the spokesperson.

Andersen has its own wellness program to educate and support its families. As a part of this, Andersen partners with the American Heart Association.

COURTESY: PROVIDENCE - Cardiologist Dr. Lori Tam says a screen time and processed food lifestyle in youth can lead to cardiovascular problems later in life.

Doctor, doctor

Dr. Lori Tam is a heart specialist at Providence Heart Institute. Her clinical interests include coronary artery disease and cardiac imaging. Although she treats mostly adults she has children aged two, five and seven, so she keeps an eye on the research into child heart health.

(Dr. Tam has degrees from Oregon Health & Science University, Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.)

"We've seen the rate of obesity in children increase in the last 30 years, and along with it the rise of insulin resistance resulting in diabetes," she told the Business Tribune. "Also, there's been an increase in the diagnosis of high blood pressure and hyperlipidemia or high cholesterol."

Dr. Tam says that is due to changes in diet — kids especially are eating more processed foods — and a decline in physical activity. This doesn't mean kids are keeling over from heart attacks. But they are getting fatter, and they are, in Dr. Tam's words, subject to "medical conditions that place kids at risk of developing heart attacks and strokes later in life."

She points out that doctors recommend kids do 60 minutes of vigorous exercise per day and limit their sedentary screen time to two hours.

"We also know if kids don't get enough sleep they are at risk of obesity," she adds. "And that is accompanied by other issues such as low self-esteem, depression and behavioral issues at school."

The solution is to reinforce lifestyle habits early on which stay with you for life.

"It's pretty common for me to see (heart patients) who tell me they have been heavy all their life."

PHOTO: MICHAEL CUMMINGS, ANDERSEN CONSTRUCTION - The Andersen Constuction obstace course in the festival area at the 2018 Portland Heart & Stroke Walk in Waterfront Park.

Don't be salty

Cardio-vascular events — heart attacks and strokes — account for one-in-two deaths in the US.

And yet they are 80% preventable. It helps to think of them as the same issue just in two parts of the body. Heart arteries that are clogged by plaque from a high cholesterol diet and not exercising, are much the same as the clogged arteries in the neck and brain that cause strokes.

Strokes are still considered slightly mysterious and not linked to diet and exercise, while jokes about "a heart attack on a plate" have been around for decades. But it's all the same thing.

Salt is a huge problem. "We used salt as a preservative for hundreds of years but when refrigeration came we kept using it because the American palate is used to it. Without it we think food doesn't taste good. The moral is to try to eat fresh as best you can and from scratch as best you can."

Dr. Tam praises schools as having made headway in making healthier lunches.

And, yes, it is a class thing.

"We know heart disease and strokes disproportionately affect those from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. Obesity is more prevalent in children from socially disadvantaged groups. In American society fast food is cheaper than fresh. There's something wrong there. It's a societal problem, we're not setting all kids on an even playing field."

The lifestyle Tam prescribes for her own family is designed to be fun and set good habits for life.

"For kids the best thing is just to let them play, active play. It doesn't have to be structured. Let them be children, ride their bikes and play with their friends. They love to play, they will never get tired of playing."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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