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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. »

3. Games and Puzzles

Whether it's crossword or jigsaw puzzles, a deck of cards, chess or board games such as Scrabble and Monopoly, these "cognitively challenging" leisure activities have been shown to keep the mind sharp — and fend off Alzheimer's, too.

"I especially recommend Scrabble and Monopoly, because they tax a part of the brain that older folks don't use very often, requiring them to recall how to spell or deal with financial issues," says Sharon Roth Maguire, a geriatric nurse practitioner and executive at BrightStar Care, which provides home health care for more than 10,000 older Americans. "In addition, games that require other players provide the social interaction that's so important as you age, and especially if you're depressed."

The biggest benefits come to those with a lifelong love for such games, with some studies showing that regular playing reduces the risk of brain plaques that cause dementia. But any game where the player has to focus and pay attention to complex strategies is helpful, she adds. That includes online games and video games. Bonus: Wii systems don't require any thumb-stressing maneuvering. Wii sports games are even used as therapy for arthritis patients.

4. Music

For some, music can be aerobic: "Everyone loves to sing loudly and dance around their house when no one is looking," notes the American Heart Association, which recommends a favorite CD on its list of heart-holiday holiday gifts. But according to University of Maryland researchers, just listening to joyful songs causes the inner lining of blood vessels to expand for improved blood flow.

For certain listeners, especially those living alone or in nursing homes, "familiar music, especially when it's a favorite song or musical style from yesteryear, touches an emotional chord that brings back fond memories," says Maguire. Whether they lead to toe tapping or not, good memories evoked by music can lead to good feelings. For those with dementia, it's even therapy. "Studies show that music helps calm those patients as effectively as some medications," she continues. When choosing CDs for older adults, stick with familiar tunes from happy times, Maguire advises. "The key is to select music associated with great memories."

5. Foreign-Language Lessons

Learning a new language is a popular New Year's resolution. Not only can it help you when you travel; it's also good for your brain. Whether you learn by attending classes or by using at-home software, studies find that bilinguals maintain better cognitive function as they age.

What's more, knowing a foreign language can delay Alzheimer's by up to five years, according to some research, and bilingual Alzheimer's patients maintain cognitive function longer. Other studies suggest that learning another language improves focus and the ability to multitask, with fewer age-related memory lapses in future years. And when a new language is learned in a short period of time, it may even increase brain size in the hippocampus, the region involved with spatial navigation as well as learning new skills.

Next page: Household helpers. »

6. Household Helpers

For people with arthritis, everyday chores can be … well, a chore.

Luckily, there are all sorts of gadgets to help.

There are "reachers" that prevent bending and straining to retrieve items high and low; "thumb rest" coffee cups and easy-grip nail clippers to prevent hand or wrist pain; rubberized grips that allow for easier lid opening; switches that are touch-sensitive or rocker-style, so you can painlessly turn on lamps; and for easier door opening, adapters that fit over hard-to-turn round doorknobs. Scores of products can be found with an online search of "arthritis aids." And for a real gift, consider reorganizing a relative's kitchen to make everyday items within easy reach.

"So many times I've found that older persons keep their pots and pans on the bottom shelf, and hurt themselves reaching for them," says Maguire. "Or they may not use them at all" because of where they're stored.

7. Pets

Sure, they are an ongoing commitment in time and money (read: not the best surprise gift). But the payback from pets? Better health for mind and body.

Canines rule as top dog in helping to preserve or improve cardiovascular health, studies say, and you can guess why: Those daily walks help manage weight and lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as improve blood vessel functioning. But cat owners are also less prone to heart problems and other health woes compared with people in feline-free homes.

Having a pet reduces stress hormones, helps control depression and Alzheimer's-related outbursts, improves immune system function and pain management, and boosts attention and alertness in older adults. Studies indicate that being with pets increases a person's levels of oxytocin, the feel-good, so-called bonding hormone, released during sex and breast-feeding, that is linked to better heart health and mood, and less inflammation.

A good gift for someone who already owns a pet could be paying for pet insurance to help with veterinary bills or buying six months' (or more) worth of pet medicine or food.

8. Mediterranean Diet Cookbooks

Delicious and nutritious, the Mediterranean diet is smart eating — literally. For decades, scores of studies have found that regular meals rich in olive oil, nuts, fish, fruit and beans (with a little red wine, to boot) lower the risk of cognitive impairment and boost heart health.

The latest evidence — a study recently published in Annals of Internal Medicine that tracked 10,670 women in their late 50s and early 60s over 15 years — even credits the Mediterranean diet for a longer and healthier life, finding a 40 percent greater chance of living past age 70 with no chronic illness.

Cookbooks recommended by AARP health and food writer Candy Sagon (who happens to be no slouch in the kitchen) include The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health by Nancy Harmon Jenkins and The Mediterranean Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone.

Sid Kirchheimer, author of Scam-Proof Your Life, writes about consumer and health issues for AARP Media.

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