The 3 Simplest Ways to Take Charge of Your Heart’s Health

An old proverb says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” One of the best ways to strengthen your spirit is to keep your heart strong enough to carry you through life with cheer.

“And it is never, ever too late to take care of your heart,” emphasizes cardiologist and researcher Mary Ann Peberdy, MD, head of the post-cardiac arrest program at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. “There are simple things anyone can do, right now, to get on track.”

Here are the first three steps toward keeping your heart healthy for years to come:

If You’re a Smoker: Quit

You’ve heard it before, but now’s the time to kick the habit for good. Smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, raises blood pressure and heart rate, and can cause blood vessel abnormalities that contribute to blockages.

Fortunately, says Peberdy, once you stop smoking, your body will quickly thank you for kicking the habit. “20 minutes after you put down your cigarette, your blood pressure and heart rate go back to normal,” says Peberdy. “Within 12 hours, your carbon monoxide levels drop. Within three months, you’ll be taking deeper breaths, and your shortness of breath will noticeably decrease. And within one year, you will have lowered your risk of cardiovascular disease by 50 percent.”

And whenever possible, stay clear of secondhand smoke, says Peberdy; it’s associated with a 30 percent higher risk of heart attack.

Get Active

The American Heart Association recommends two and a half hours per week of moderate to intensive aerobic exercise. (Sounds like a lot, but if you break it down, it’s only about 30 minutes a day!) To find your target heart rate, subtract your age from the number 220. The result is the number of beats per minute you should aim for.

“But you don’t have to be that compulsive,” says Peberdy. “Just exercise hard enough to break a sweat; you should feel like you’re actually doing something. You can accomplish that with brisk walking.” Has it been a while since you’ve gotten off the sofa? Start slow -- but do start. “The main point about exercise,” says Peberdy, “is that doing anything is better than doing nothing.”

Know Your Numbers

To get an idea of your overall cardiac health, it’s important to find out your body mass index (BMI), blood pressure and cholesterol and triglyceride numbers.

BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. (Find yours online at sites like this.) If your BMI falls in the overweight-to-obese range, it’s time to make some lifestyle changes. “Extra weight is closely linked with high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, all of which contribute to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Peberdy. And keep in mind: The higher your number, the greater the danger.

An elevated BP is one of the biggest contributors to coronary artery disease, says Peberdy. A normal blood pressure is considered lower than 120/80; if you’re at that level or slightly higher, you may have pre-hypertension -- a sign that you could develop high blood pressure if you don’t take steps to lower your number. While medication is sometimes necessary, Peberdy says that losing as little as 10 pounds may be all it takes to get your BP back to normal.

Cholesterol consists of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) --“bad” cholesterol -- which contributes to heart disease; and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) -- “good” cholesterol -- that protects against the disease. Knowing your cholesterol numbers will give you an indication of your cardiac risk. Get yours checked with a simple blood test. What you’ll want to see is an HDL rate greater than 50 mg/dL (above that is “awesome,” says Peberdy) and LDL levels lower than 130 mg/dL if you’re young and healthy. As for triglycerides, anything over 150 mg/dL could be indicative of diabetes, which is a big risk factor for heart disease in women.

True, sometimes heart disease risk is a matter of genetics. But making healthy choices can still make a difference even if heart problems run in your family. “The take-away here,” says Peberdy, “is that it’s never too late to take control." 

Have a Case of the Motherhood Blues?

Motherhood is supposed to be a joy-filled journey -- or so the ads and Facebook memes tell us. So why does it seem as though our days are largely about nagging, supervising homework, changing diapers and shuttling kids to and from their activities? What’s wrong with this picture?

“Today’s mothers are stressed out, overworked and pulled in so many directions that it can be hard to find the pleasure in parenting,” says Barbara Siergiewicz, a certified parent coach and child development specialist based in Rockport, Mass. “But if you remember how happy you were when you got pregnant and what you appreciate about your children, instead of the challenges of parenting, you’re making a choice to be joyful.”

Follow this roadmap to restore the pleasure of parenting:

Make a Heart Connection

Set aside time every day to have a meaningful conversation with your child -- one that’s focused on feelings, not homework or chores. “Ask open-ended questions to find out what’s going on in your child’s life,” advises Siergiewicz. “For example, ‘What was the best thing that happened today?’ or ‘What was the funniest thing that happened?’” No matter where the conversation takes place -- whether over dinner or in the car -- stay in the moment by listening intently. This will create a more relaxed, closer parent-child relationship and will foster what Siergiewicz calls the “heart connection.”

Stop the Gripe Sessions

Sure, it feels good to vent to your BFFs about your kids’ picky eating or to send a Twitter feed about your mom meltdown. But making it a habit is a big mistake -- and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If you concentrate on the negative of parenting, it’s like pouring kerosene on the fire,” says Siergiewicz. “Negativity begets negativity -- and that will keep you from rediscovering the joy of being a mom.” Try sharing the good things -- photos of your child playing in the snow or news of a school concert -- and you’ll be rewarded with a glow of pride.

Catch Them Being Good

“Many parents expect adult-level performance from their kids, and they’re not capable of delivering it,” says Siergiewicz. This sets up a lose-lose situation, with the child falling short and the parents feeling perpetually disappointed. Rather than focusing on what your 10-year-old does wrong and nagging him about it (which isn’t very joyful), accept that he’ll make mistakes and praise him for what he does right. Saying “Thanks for putting away your toys” or “Thanks for clearing your plate without being asked” reinforces good behavior. As Siergiewicz notes, “Positive feedback will boost your child’s self esteem and lead to more of the positive behavior you want to see.” And the better the behavior, the less nagging you’ll need to do.

Clear the Calendar

Jam-packed schedules are a recipe for cranky kids and exhausted parents. Limit your child to just two extracurricular activities each week -- say, basketball and guitar lessons -- so everyone will have a chance to relax, recharge and reconnect. The less time you spend racing from one activity to another, the more time you’ll have to be in the moment with your children and simply enjoy their company. 

Create Family Rituals

Families need regular fun time, whether it’s watching a movie together on Friday night or going out for breakfast on Saturday morning. Having something that everyone can look forward to helps increase the joy. “Family rituals that are positive, loving and nurturing -- where parents and children are focused on each other -- create lasting memories that sustain us through hard times,” says Siergiewicz. (Like those days when you’re busy carpooling!)

The Need-to-Know Now Dandruff Fixes

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet,” wrote Kahlil Gibran, “and the winds long to play with your hair.” No disrespect to the revered poet and writer, but Gibran must never have endured a bad case of dandruff. If he had, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone -- including the wind -- near his flake-flecked locks.

Plenty of us have experienced the itchy embarrassment of dandruff. But many of us don’t realize what causes it, or the most effective way to treat it. For answers to your most pressing questions, we turned to Stephanie S. Gardner, a medical, surgical and cosmetic dermatologist who’s been in private practice for 23 years in Atlanta, Ga.

What causes dandruff?

Your flakes may not just be caused by a dry scalp -- it could be an allergy. While an exact cause isn’t known, says Gardner, “Studies suggest that dandruff may be an inflammatory reaction to proliferation of a yeast called malassezia that grows on the skin. We think that malassezia produces toxins that irritate and inflame the skin among patients who have a resistance to the yeast.” The condition occurs most often during the change of seasons and among those who sweat profusely.

Does dandruff appear only on the scalp?

Not always. “Dandruff can also occur between your eyes and on the brows, around your nose and lips, inside and behind the ears -- even on the chest and back,” says Gardner. And it’s not only adults who are affected: Many infants develop “cradle cap,” a yellow, oily and scaly variety of the condition.  

What’s the best way to treat it?

Luckily, dandruff is highly treatable, no matter where it occurs. For most people, says Gardner, anti-dandruff shampoos will do the trick, but only if you allow them to sit on the affected area -- the scalp or elsewhere -- for five minutes before rinsing. “It’s perfectly safe to massage the shampoo right into the skin” -- even into an infant’s scalp, says Gardner. Different anti-dandruff shampoos contain different active ingredients, including zinc pyrithione (found in Head & Shoulders), selenium sulfide, salicylic acid and tar. 

What if my dandruff persists?

If regular shampooing doesn’t keep your condition under control, rub a bit of one percent hydrocortisone cream -- available over the counter -- right into the affected area. On the scalp, let it sit for five minutes before rinsing, advises Gardner. For more resistant cases, your doctor may prescribe a lotion or foam version of topical corticosteroid. For truly problematic cases, says Gardner, “We have something called coal tar,” which is messy and smelly but may clear things nicely. And in rare, severe cases, your dermatologist may prescribe Accutane, an acne medication that suppresses sebaceous gland activity. If none of these methods brings relief, your doctor may order tests to find out whether a broader disorder, like zinc deficiency, is causing your symptoms.

How can I prevent dandruff?

Daily, gentle shampooing will prevent dandruff buildup, says Gardner. While dandruff can be brought on by unavoidable illness (like the flu), two other major triggers -- too much stress and too little sleep -- are easier to control. So if you can reduce worry and increase your Z’s, you may see a difference not only on your scalp, but the rest of your skin as well.

How and Why You Should Wear Red This Season

This month, it’s all about red -- the color of passion and power. Whether you’re dressed in ruby, scarlet, poppy, cherry, tomato, paprika, claret, maroon or burgundy, “red always is an attention getter,” says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of Pantone Color Institute. “There’s nothing quiet or soothing about it. It’s the color of high arousal and confidence.”

Whatever shade you choose, “the only thing that matters is that it’s vibrant,” says Joanna Schlip, celebrity makeup artist to Christina Applegate. “Even this season’s oxblood isn’t muddy, dark or tragic.” Shy about wearing red? Don’t be! You can make this dynamic color work for you with these tips from celebrity stylists and makeup artists:

Keep It in the Family

Any skin tone or hair color works with the color of love, as long as you stick with your skin’s undertone -- either pinkish (cool) or yellow/olive (warm). To figure out what your undertone is, look at your inner wrist under a good light. If the skin has a pink or blue cast, you have a cool undertone; if it’s yellow or olive, it’s warm. Still not sure? Check your jewelry. “If silver is your best friend, you’re a cool tone. If you gravitate toward gold, you’re a warm tone,” says Pilar Steinborn, a CNN wardrobe stylist.

Cool-toned women look best in cool reds like cherry, racing-car red or wine. For warm complexions, look for tomato, rust, grenadine, mandarin or poppy.

Make a Perfect Match

The freshest approach to red in 2014 is to mix and match clothes in variations of colors within your palette, says Eiseman. “Reach into peachy variations of orange-red, or pinky colors with blue undertones for blue-reds such as wine.” Other good matches for a red dress, blouse or jeans include jet, chocolate, charcoal, camel, khaki, teal or turquoise -- and you can’t go wrong with vermillion set against 2014’s trendy fuchsias and purples. “They’re a marriage made in heaven,” says Don O’Neill, the creative director behind Theia evening wear. “But avoid pairing red with green except at Christmas, or with blue unless it’s toned down with white or black.”

Accessorize for a Quieter Impact.

If you’re hesitant to wear such a confident color, limit it to accents, says Steinborn. “A red lip, patent belt or pony-hair shoe will make a black dress pop.”

Know How to Wear Red Lipstick

Want to pucker up in red? Keep the rest of your makeup simple. “You don’t want a dark eye with red lips -- and use just a hint of blush,” says Schlip. “You’ll get all the color you need via your pout.”

If you’re also firing up your nails in red, use a different texture on your lips, says Nick Barose, makeup artist for 2014’s It Girl, Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave. “Wear a matte bold red on nails and a sheer red stain on your mouth.”

To make your lipstick stay on your lips (and not your coffee mug), exfoliate your lips first with a toothbrush, says Schlip. Moisturize with balm and blot with a tissue. Then try a homemade lip stain straight from the kitchen: Add a few drops of water to a teaspoon of powdered red Kool-Aid or Jell-O to make a paste, then apply to your lips with a cotton swab. Amp up the glamour -- and avoid feathering -- by filling in your lip next with liner. Finally, apply a long-wear lipstick or a gloss-matte hybrid “liquid lipstick” with a lip brush for the most precision. Blot with a tissue and reapply, without re-blotting.

Before heading out, check your teeth for smudges and pack a lip pencil, says Schlip. After all, this is the month of romance -- and you never know when you might need a quick touch-up.

Your Best 20-Minute Workout

Ready to get in shape but not sure you’ve got the time? Between long workdays, packed weekends and family obligations, it can seem impossible to fit in an hour of exercise several times a week. Fortunately, there are a variety of routines you can add to your schedule that will help you get (or stay!) in shape in just 20 minutes. Bonus: You can do them anywhere.

We’ve asked Lesley Mettler-Auld, a running, triathlon and fitness coach in Seattle, to share a 20-minute workout she does. The exercise routine she gave us can be used as a supplement to your current routine or as a primary workout if you’re crunched for time. “It’s designed to use all the major muscles of the body in a different way [and is] very efficient,” she says. “Start with light weights until you get the motion down, then increase weight as your muscles are ready.”

Repeat each exercise for 50 seconds, taking 10 seconds to move on to the next exercise. Repeat the entire circuit twice.

Get Started:

Equipment needed: one set of dumbbells or a resistance band

  • Burpies: Begin in a plank position, with legs extended and feet hip-width apart. Rest your weight on your hands or forearms. Jump to a squat position. From there, reach your hands over your head and jump as high as you can. Return to a squat, step or jump back into plank pose and repeat.
  • Squat Combination: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet hip-width apart and weight on your heels. Lower into a squat while keeping your knees behind your toes. As you rise, curl the dumbbells into a biceps curl, then extend your arms and press the weights over your head with your palms facing inward. Lower and repeat.
  • Mountain Climbers: Begin in a plank position with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your right knee to touch your left elbow, then return to plank position and repeat with your right knee to left elbow. Continue alternating sides.
  • Narrow Hand Push-Up: Begin in a plank position on your feet or with your knees bent on the ground. Lower your body down into a push-up while keeping your elbows in and along your sides. Return to plank and repeat.
  • Boat Pose: Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Raise legs to a 45-degree angle from your torso. Keeping your back straight, lean back slightly, forming a “V” shape with your body. Bring your arms out in a straight line, parallel to your legs, and hold this position.
  • Bicycle Crunch: Lie on your back with your knees bent and abs pulled tight toward your spine. With your hands behind your head, extend one leg out while lifting your shoulders off the floor and bringing the opposite knee toward the opposite shoulder. Switch sides and repeat.
  • Shoulder Press with Leg Extension: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and bend your elbows to hold the weights at shoulder height. Raise your right leg to 90 degrees and, with your leg raised, exhale and extend your arms up with palms facing inward. Lower your arms and leg at the same time and repeat on the other side.
  • Bent-Over Fly: Bend at the waist, letting your arms hang down with a dumbbell in each hand. With a straight back and moving only your shoulders, lift the dumbbells up and out to the side until they’re even with your back. Slowly lower and repeat. 
  • Biceps Hammer Curl with band or dumbbell: Keeping your arms at your sides and bent at the elbows, raise and lower your arms into a curl.
  • Crunches: Lying on the floor with a flat back and bent knees, place your hands behind your head and use your abs to lift and lower your head and shoulders.

Got an exercise ball? You can incorporate it into your quick workout with exercises such as crunches and the “Superman” stretch (lying face-down on the ball, lift your right arm and left leg; hold and switch to your left arm/right leg).

Completing exercises like these in a circuit format allows you to do more with your workout in the same period of time, making the most of your routine.