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The Gift of Good Health

‘Tis the season for the giving and receiving of gifts and most of us will be doing a little (or a lot) of both this month.  When we think of gifts, we usually think of an item that we buy or make, wrapped up and handed to the recipient to be opened and appreciated at the exact time of our choosing.  It is concrete.  We can see it and touch it.  The gift of good health is something a little more abstract.  It can’t be bought or sold.  It can’t be wrapped in a box or opened on Christmas morning.  It is instead a gift born of our own desire, grown through our hard work and dedication, and nurtured by our commitment to change.  Sadly, the gift of good health is often unappreciated when we have it and difficult to reclaim once we have lost it. Difficult, but not impossible!  As you give and receive gifts this holiday season, consider giving yourself the gift of good health in the coming year by taking the first few steps in the right direction.  Think of some gifts you can give your mind and body over the coming days and months as you work toward your goal of improved health.  Here are a few ideas to get you started.

The Gift of Physical Fitness

When you are physically fit, not only will you live longer, your quality of life will be better! That is a gift that benefits not only you, but your friends and loved ones as well!  Just a few of the scientifically proven benefits of exercise and fitness include: 

It improves your mental health and mood, including reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety without the side effects of drugs. 

Even moderate activity several times per week will boost the good levels of cholesterol in your body, benefit your circulatory system, and lower your blood fats and blood pressure significantly.  All of these results will help to reduce your risk for heart attack, heart disease, and stroke.

It builds muscle mass and strengthens bones.  This is extremely important as you age, as weakened muscles lead to increased risk of falls.  Falls in individuals with weakened bones often cause fractures, specifically of the hips and vertebra of the back.

It reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer.

It helps you maintain a healthy weight.  To give you a better idea of the daily benefits of fitness, keep in mind that low intensity activity, like walking, bicycling slowly, and gardening, will burn about 200 calories per hour.  Activities of a medium intensity, like brisk walking, bicycling, tennis, and raking, can burn up to 400 calories per hour.


The Gift of Fruits and Vegetables

Similar to the benefits of exercise, the benefits of eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits are numerous.  Many studies have found a link between increased fruit and vegetable consumption and decreased risk for heart disease, including heart attack and stroke.  The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables protect against certain types of cancers.  The fiber helps reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. The potassium may lower blood pressure, and may also reduce the risk of developing kidney stones and help to decrease bone loss.  In fact, fruits and vegetables are packed with lots of little gifts of their own! 

  • Eating foods such as vegetables that are lower in calories per cup instead of some other higher-calorie food is useful in helping to lower calorie intake (this means weight loss).

  • Most vegetables are naturally low in fat and calories. NONE have cholesterol.

  • Diets rich in potassium may help to maintain healthy blood pressure. Vegetable sources of potassium include sweet potatoes, white potatoes, white beans, tomato products (paste, sauce, and juice), beet greens, soybeans, lima beans, spinach, lentils, and kidney beans.

  • Dietary fiber from vegetables, as part of an overall healthy diet, helps reduce blood cholesterol levels and may lower risk of heart disease. Fiber is important for proper bowel function. It helps reduce constipation and diverticulosis. Fiber-containing foods help provide a feeling of fullness with fewer calories.

  • Folate (folic acid) helps the body form red blood cells. Women of childbearing age who consume adequate folate from foods and supplements reduce the risk of neural tube defects, spina bifida, and anencephaly during fetal development.

  •  Vitamin A keeps eyes and skin healthy and helps to protect against infections.

  •  Vitamin C helps heal cuts and wounds and keeps teeth and gums healthy. Vitamin C aids in iron absorption.


The Gift of Whole Grains

Whole grains are packed with nutrients including protein, fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, and trace minerals (iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium). A diet rich in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer. Whole-grain diets can also improve bowel health by helping to maintain regular bowel movements and promote growth of healthy bacteria in the colon (if you’ve ever been constipated, you know that regularity is definitely a gift you can appreciate). Yet the average American eats less than one serving per day, and over 40% never eat whole grains at all.  To recognize whole grains, keep this list handy when checking the ingredients in foods:

    Whole-grain corn

    Whole oats/oatmeal


    Brown rice

    Whole rye

    Whole-grain barley

    Wild rice



    Bulgur (cracked wheat)




    100% whole wheat flour

It's also important to check the ingredients list for the word "whole" preceding the grain (such as "whole wheat flour"). Ideally, the whole grain will be the first ingredient in the list, indicating that the product contains more whole grain than any other ingredient by weight.


The Gift of Hydration

Water makes up about 60 percent of your body weight. Every system in your body depends on water so lack of water can lead to dehydration, a condition that occurs when you don't have enough water in your body to carry out normal functions. Even mild dehydration can drain your energy and make you tired. However, how much water you should drink each day depends on many factors, including your health, how active you are and where you live.

The good news is you don't need to rely only on water, or even only on what you drink to meet your fluid needs. What you eat also provides a significant portion of your fluid needs. On average, food provides about 20 percent of total water intake. For example, many fruits and vegetables, such as watermelon and tomatoes, are 90 percent or more water by weight. In addition, beverages such as milk and juice are composed mostly of water. Even beer, wine and caffeinated beverages — such as coffee, tea or soda — can contribute, but these choices can be loaded with calories, caffeine, and carbonation, all things that are not “gifts” to a bariatric patient! Water is still your best bet because it's calorie-free and inexpensive!  Basic benefits of water include:

Maintains balance of body fluids

Helps control calories

Energizes muscles

Helps keep skin looking clearer and firmer

Helps your kidneys naturally cleanse your body of toxins (When you're getting enough fluids, urine flows freely, is light in color and free of odor).

Helps maintain normal bowel function


The Gift of a Good Night’s Sleep

Research shows that sleep is a period where cells are doing a lot of repairing.  Your hormones and your immune system are affected dramatically by sleep, so allowing yourself to get 7 to 9 hours per night is a truly a gift!  Research shows that sleep is linked to all of the following:

Colds and Flu---Sleep deprivation weakens your immune system, leaving it less able to fight off colds, flu, and other infections.

 Heart Disease---long term sleep deprivation leads to an inflammatory response in your blood vessels and arteries.  Chronic inflammation has been linked to things like heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.

 The key underlying problem in type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance, where the body does not make proper use of this sugar-processing hormone. Guess what? When you’re sleep deprived, your body almost immediately develops conditions that resemble the insulin resistance of diabetes.  One study found that people in their late 20s and early 30s who slept less than 6.5 hours per night had the insulin sensitivity of someone more than 60 years old.


As you reflect on the year that is about to end, and celebrate the new year that is to come, use these gift ideas to get you started (or restarted) on the path to a longer, healthier life.  Good health, as much as it is in your control, is truly the best gift you will ever give yourself, and your coworkers, family, and friends will also benefit from a healthier, happier you!

by Jennifer Kirkpatrick