Free holiday gift, get one for yourself

I’m not saying be selfish. Santa forbid! I am saying that if you don’t take good care of your own health, you’ll burn out trying to care for others. Give, give, give. That’s what this season can feel like. So why don’t you take, take, take some time for yourself to realize your deep desire to be healthier and happier: more available to loved ones; less susceptible to aches, pains and the chronic diseases that we associate with aging, but that are really the result of a sedentary, nutritionally naive lifestyle.

I’ve listed three perfectly wonderful gifts you can give yourself this holiday season, all free, all life-changing. Choose one today, and in 2008 find a way to make it happen.

  1. The gift of stretching
Here’s the inflexible truth: As you age, your body just naturally grows tighter, more locked and less mobile. If you do nothing to relieve tension in tight shoulders or shortened hamstrings or to open up the channels of energy that keep your organs happy and your spine well-juiced, then you are asking for trouble. What kind of trouble? Muscle aches, back pains, low energy, a compromised immune system … I could go on. Am I stretching the truth here? Not one meniscus. But the good news is it’s never too late to unleash, unfold, and unlock a tight and tired body. You can see amazing results - whether you’re 19 or 91 - if you are patient with the process and yourself.

So, that’s what this gift is all about. S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G any way and anywhere you can: at your desk, in your kitchen, at the gym or, best of all, on a yoga mat. Don’t say you’ll try. I continue to quote Yoda every chance I get: “Do not try. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

  1. The gift of mindful exercise
There was a mind-boggling bit of research reported in the February issue of Psychological Science. Two groups of women were studied, both comprised of hotel maids. Their daily chores involved pulling on sheets, pushing a vacuum, scrubbing bathtubs and so on. One-third of all the women told the researchers they got no exercise at all; two-thirds said they did not exercise regularly. All of the maids had the same poor health associated with a sedentary lifestyle and ranked low in basic fitness measures.

Here comes the amazing part. One group was informed that the chores they were doing actually amounted to serious exercise. Cleaning 15 rooms a day meant they more than met the surgeon general’s recommendation of 30 minutes of daily physical activity. They were also told how many calories they were burning with every chore: 50 calories for 15 minutes of vacuuming, 60 calories for 15 minutes of scrubbing, etc. The other group, sadly, was left in ignorance and continued to think of themselves as slugs.

After a month, the researchers retested the maids and eureka! The maids who became mindful that they were exercising lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their body-fat, reduced their blood pressure by 10 points and tested “significantly healthier” than before. Their behavior hadn’t changed, just their mindset. What’s the gift in this study? Be more present for every move you make. Do all your physical activities in an engaged, mindful way. If you can’t increase the quantity of time you exercise - 30 minutes isn’t that much - at least increase the quality. Focus more, worry less, and polish up your enthusiasm for taking out the trash.

  1. The gift of smarter eating
Quit dieting.

That’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Diets are short term and sure to fail over time.

A billion studies can’t be wrong. So instead of suffering and denial, give yourself the gift of true understanding about food and how it influences your health.

Take the time to learn what your body needs to be healthy, happy and strong. Repeat after me: more fruits and vegetables, less processed food, sensible portions, blah, blah, blah.

Making the change from corn chips to carrots isn’t easy, but when you see the change in how you look and feel, it’ll be a piece of cake.

Marilynn Preston is a fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues. She welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to