Ideas for holiday gifts promoting health, fitness

Herbal and supplement sales as-sociate Lisa Wilson unpacks boxes of natural supplements at The Natural Living Center in Bangor on Friday. Herbal supplements are one of many gifts that lend to healthful living this season.
Herbal and supplement sales as-sociate Lisa Wilson unpacks boxes of natural supplements at The Natural Living Center in Bangor on Friday. Herbal supplements are one of many gifts that lend to healthful living this season.
Posted Nov. 26, 2010, at 10:02 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 27, 2010, at 7:24 a.m.

The long tradition of holiday gift giving rightfully celebrates human generosity, thoughtfulness and creative indulgence. But if, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “the first wealth is health,” most likely there is someone on your gift list who would benefit more from a carefully selected gift that promotes good health than from an-other video game, kitchen appliance or power tool.

With obesity rates in Maine more than doubling over the past 10 years and the incidence of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease on the rise, surely a nudge toward a more healthful lifestyle can only be seen as a welcome demonstration of affection. After all, friends want friends to live long and healthy lives, right? And there’s no reason in the world to wait for New Year’s Day to make a commitment to a more wholesome diet, a more active daily routine, more effective stress management and a generally more joyous life.

The holidays are a perfect time to explore new ways of cooking and eating. A gift basket that includes an appealing recipe and nutrition guide, some locally produced and organic foods and some stress-reducing teas is a great present. Or choose a favorite family dish to prepare and find ways to lower the sugar, fat and calories it contains. (Cheesecake comes to mind.)

For those who need a bit of guidance in using unfamiliar foods or changing ingrained eating habits, cooking and nutrition classes are available. Local grocery stores offer classes and tours of their natural foods sections and storewide nutritional rating programs. Many public adult education programs feature courses in healthful cooking on a budget, as does the Maine Cooperative Extension program based at the University of Maine. Some restaurants also may be willing to offer group cooking lessons. Signing up with a friend or spouse is a great way to support a new approach to selecting and preparing delicious foods.

More and more Americans are suffering from a lack of physical activity in their daily lives. Public health experts say sedentary jobs, jam-packed school schedules and an excess of television and computer “screen time” contribute to poor physical fitness and elevated stress levels among adults and children.

You can help your loved ones buck this unhealthful trend. And it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, either. Sure, you can do your part to stimulate the economy by shopping for big-ticket equipment such as treadmills and stationary bikes, but be aware that these items often end up gathering dust. Skis, snowshoes, bicycles, kayaks and other gear are great, but also pricey and not for everyone.

A gym or pool membership is more affordable for many folks and a real benefit for those who are motivated to fit a regular workout routine into their lives. Even on a very strict holiday budget, the most effective and personal fitness gift may be a commitment to join your friend or family member for a brisk daily walk, a bi-weekly bowling date or a half-hour yoga video three mornings a week. The “buddy system” often succeeds where personal motivation fails and has the significant added advantage of building friendship.

Here are some other suggestions to help you give the gift of good health:

  • A new set of iPod headphones and a gift certificate for downloadable workout tunes.
  • Sneakers and sweats for the gym.
  • Swim goggles and a jazzy towel tucked into a locker-room bag for the pool.
  • A gift certificate for indoor sports such as bowling or tennis, or a weekly class in yoga or tai chi.
  • Warm socks, gloves, long underwear and a hat for walking and outdoor activities.
  • A new winter leash and some healthful, home-baked treats for the family dog, who also could use a bit more exercise.
  • A gift certificate for a relaxing professional massage, or your own customized version. (Hint: foot massages are especially well received).

Whether you enjoy the rough-and-tumble of shopping the malls and business district, prefer the convenience of on-line purchasing or look forward to making gifts yourself, you can promote the good health of the people you love with thoughtful holiday choices.

Meg Haskell is the health editor at the Bangor Daily News.

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