Top 10 Gifts That Bring Health and Holiday Cheer

With disposable income scarce this year, giving practical gifts is in vogue. And what could be more useful than a tooth cleaning, or, say, GYN exam? Some of Planned Parenthood's affiliates offer gift certificates that recipients can use for birth control, among other things. It may be a controversial present, but it also might be just the right thing for the uninsured woman in your life. Even a traditional fruit-of-the-month subscription could be especially welcome this year as prices for groceries climb along with the unemployment numbers. Health truly is "the gift that keeps on giving," says James Rohack, president-elect of the American Medical Association.

Here are 10 of the best ways to make 2009 a little healthier for your loved ones:

1. Be a Tooth Fairy. We're not suggesting you add free root canals to your Christmas stockings, but since dental coverage is either limited or non-existent for so many Americans, a tooth cleaning makes a fine gift for anyone who's been putting off getting dental care because of cost. So contact your beloved's dentist and ask for a gift certificate. A basic cleaning appointment typically starts at $50, depending on the location. And, as every one knows, a little preventive care now can save lots of money later. 

Bleaching is more of a luxury, but it's not strictly cosmetic since white teeth can motivate people to take care of their new beautiful smile. It runs from about $30 (for home strips) to as high as $800 for some professional whitening treatments, says Farmington, Minn., dentist Kimberly Harms, the American Dental Association's consumer adviser. (You should be sensitive to your recipient here. Make sure it's something they'd purchase themselves. You don't want to imply that you think someone has discolored teeth.)

If you're buying for kids, consider a cool toothbrush for kids—such as Tooth Tunes Musical Toothbrush or a mermaid-handled one. Just check to be sure the bristles are soft so they can bend and get underneath teeth and gums, says Harms. For grown-up gadget fans, a high-end electric toothbrush can be a great present.

2. Office Visits. With 47 million Americans lacking insurance and skyrocketing co-payments and deductibles, a pre-paid visit to the doctor's office makes a useful present. Medical credit-card companies are now issuing health-care gift cards. But beware of fees and expiration dates on this; a gift certificate may be better. In January, Consumer Reports noted that the Healthcare Visa Gift Card from Pennsylvania-based insurer Highmark costs $4.95, plus a minimum $1.25 shipping fee, plus $4.95 for a replacement if it's lost.  Instead of navigating those tricky terms, you could write a check to a loved one's doctor for the next visit, or consider a drug-store gift card for someone who has high pharmaceutical bills.

A gift of a doctor's care or credits at a pharmacy may be especially appropriate for single women. A National Center for Health Statistics data brief released this week found that unmarried women ages 25 to 64 were more likely to be uninsured (21 percent) than married with in the same age group (13 percent). While the decision by Indiana's Planned Parenthood to offer gift certificates for clinic services incited a wave of criticism from right-to-life groups, the certificates sell online for $25 and up at www.ppin.org. Since this program is not offered by all Planned Parenthood clinics, you'll have to check that they're available near you.

3. Fancy Foods. Organic fruits and vegetables are often pricey and end up being one of the first things to be cut from the family budget when times are tight. Even non-organic fruit can seem expensive these days, so consider a monthly shipment of produce or other healthy treats. Visit www.theorganicpages.com and click on "gift baskets" in the online store.  Check out companies like CF Fresh, Frieda's Inc., Mountain Organic Foods—all members of the Organic Trade Association. Or go upscale and order from Harry & David's, www.harryanddavid.com. The three-month fruit-of-the-month-club gift (pears in December, apples in January, navel oranges in February) costs $124.95. Or check with a local organic farm.

4. Fit Club.  Splurge for a friend or family member who enjoys working out at the gym. Last year the average U.S. health club charged $35 a month or $402 a year, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. To find out information about local clubs, search by city and state on healthclubs.com, a consumer Web site run by IHRSA. Some clubs, such as Club One, offer actual gift cards. Most offer gift certificates for memberships and personal-training sessions, according to IHRSA spokesman Kara Thompson. Check to make sure your friend or relative doesn't already own a gym membership: 41.5 million Americans currently belong to health clubs, according to IRHSA.

5. Yoga Stuff. Is there a better gift than inner peace?  Yoga helps with stress, flexibility and blood flow. "It's one of those forms of exercise that not only works your body but works your mind, works your soul, your spirit," says yoga instructor Peter Sterios, founder for Manduka, a leading yoga-gear company. Buy a subscription to the old standby, Yoga Journal, or to the classic book, "Light on Yoga."  Gear is good, too. Manduka, www.manduka.com, offers a lifetime guarantee on mats that cost $42 to $85.  A lightweight, highly absorbent towel is another good bet. Consider a gift certificate for classes at studios such as Yoga Works. Expect to pay anywhere from $10 to $20 for a 90-minute class, depending on location, says Sterios. Consider throwing in a post-workout massage to pamper the recipient, too.

6. A Rub Down.  After a workout, or just a stressful day, a massage can reduce stress, improve blood flow and increase flexibility.  Plan to pay $45 to $75 an hour in most places—though it may run more than $100 in major cities and at high-level resorts, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. To find massage therapists who meet all state or local licensing requirements and meet the AMTA's minimum professional standards, search by zip code and massage specialty on the AMTA's locator, www.findamassagetherapist.org. The service is also available by phone, toll-free at 888-843-2682. Most massage therapists sell gift certificates, according to the AMTA.

7. Exercise Gear. Shoes are a runner's and walker's best friend, but they're expensive—as is most fitness wear. And it's not just about fashion. "If you don't have good foot support, then you wind up getting foot injuries, and then your motivation to get healthy is limited," says the AMA's Rohack, president-elect of the American Medical Association. So don't let your favorite amateur athlete work out in worn-out gear. Buy them a gift certificate to a good sports supply store. Or choose some snappy exercise gear and include the gift receipt for exchanges. The August issue of Consumer Reports gives top marks to the Nike Air Zoom Vomero+2 running shoes for men and women ($120).

If you're shopping for a new or reluctant exerciser, make it a social activity. Offer to take them shopping, and then work out with them a few times. To help recipients know how to get moving, consider simply printing out some basic "Healthier Life Steps" information from www.ama-assn.org— a free extra to throw in the box with the gift certificate or the running garb.

8. Health Monitoring Gadgets. While buying someone a bathroom scale might be a bit insulting, high-tech at-home self-test kits such as a blood-pressure monitor could be just the ticket. Eighty million Americans have high blood pressure, and only a third of them have it under control. In September, Consumer Reports gave top marks to the Omron Women's Advanced Elite and CVS by Microlife Deluxe Advanced blood-pressure monitors ($100 each).

For a diabetic friend or relative, consider a blood-glucose meter. In September, Consumer Reports gave the OneTouch UltraMini ($20) its top rating for accuracy, consistency and ease of use. For supplies and cookbooks, the Diabetes Mall at Diabetes.net offers gift certificates    And, Dlife.com has this guide to buying for diabetics.  Also consider a pedometer, available for as little as $20.

9. Pick Up the Check. Most restaurants now offer healthy options. One way to find good spots: the National Restaurant Association's partner site, www.healthydiningfinder.com. According to the NRA, 77 percent of consumers say they would like to receive a restaurant gift card or gift certificate on gift occasions.

10. Good-For-You Reads. Skip the fads and invest in books like the American Medical Association's "Complete Guide to Prevention and Wellness," the American Pediatric Association's "Caring for Your Baby and Young Child," or even the hard-core Merck Manual. Also helpful: "The Pill Book: An Illustrated Guide to the Most-Prescribed Drugs in the United States." Also consider healthy cookbooks. The AMA sells "AMA Family Cookbook: Good Food That's Good for You," "Healthy Heart Cookbook," "Diabetes Cookbook," "Hypertension Cookbook" and "The AMA Family Health Cookbook." Or consider Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian."

The bottom line: the economy may be going downhill, but that doesn't mean your loved ones' health needs to follow suit.

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