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8 Great (and Healthy) Holiday Gifts

Looking for something to give this season? Try these: They’re good for mind and body

Herb and vegetable garden. Gifts that promote a healthy mind and body. (Amana Images/Alamy)

Herb garden supplies are a healthy and lasting gift. — Amana Images/Alamy

En español l No disrespect to Santa and his half-pint helpers, but what we really want is the gift of a healthy mind and body.

While good habits, genes and luck certainly factor in, you can help your loved ones achieve that wish with these low-cost offerings that are both enjoyable and improve health.

1. Gardening Supplies

A green thumb helps keep your health in the pink — on several fronts. Consumed regularly, many herbs that are ideal for a small garden (placed by a window to get at least six hours of sunlight during winter's chill) can provide a tasty nutritional punch, thanks to their bounty of vitamins and phytochemicals.

  • Basil is rich in blood-clotting vitamin K (but talk to your doctor if you're on a blood thinner) and magnesium.

  • Mint is a good source of vitamin C and aids digestion.

  • Oregano has anti-inflammatory effects and is effective against food-borne illness.

  • Rosemary is believed to ease joint pain and prevent gene mutations that lead to cancer.

  • Sage has been shown to help boost memory, decrease blood glucose levels and reduce artery-damaging inflammation.

  • Thyme contains a substance that maintains proper functioning of the nervous system.

If plants aren't available, many herbs are easily grown indoors from seed. Come spring (or even now for Sunbelters), they can be transplanted outdoors for another benefit — exercise. With handheld tools such as a spade, rake or cultivator and weeder, gardening burns around 300 calories per hour for an average-weight adult. A new 12-year Swedish study found that sixty-somethings who don't engage in traditional exercise can reap benefits through gardening, namely a 27 percent reduced risk of heart attack. Other studies have found that gardening is an effective stress reliever and mood elevator.

2. Juggling Equipment

No clowning around: "Juggling has been associated with increased brain volume and improved intellectual skills," notes clinical psychologist Cynthia Green, Ph.D., of Memory Arts LLC, a New York-area company that provides memory fitness and brain-health training.

Learning to juggle, according to several small studies, increases not only the brain's "gray matter" (consisting mainly of nerve cell bodies) but also its "white matter" (the brain's cabling network). That's one reason why some therapists now employ juggling to treat people who have Alzheimer's, brain injuries and even chronic pain. Other findings suggest that juggling eases anxiety, builds self-esteem and, particularly in older adults, improves motor skills. Plus, it builds strength and coordination and provides a decent low-impact workout — burning about 272 calories per hour in an average-weight adult (nearly as much as walking 3 miles).

Assuming the user has no physical impairments, juggling sticks are ideal for a beginner, since they are easier to master than balls or beanbags. Another easy way for beginners to learn basic juggling moves: Start with scarves.

Next page: These activities have been shown to keep the mind sharp. »

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