Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow has heard a lot of bad gift stories. But nothing, she says, strikes her as bad as the one about the woman who got an acne treatment kit from a friend for Christmas.
"She said 'I know my friend did it lovingly,' " and the woman had been talking about how much her skin condition bothered her. But still ... pretty bad, Yarrow says.
That story illustrates a problem with many health-themed gifts, she says: They have a huge potential to be not only a disappointment, but an insult — something that is intended to say "I care," but ends up saying "you have bad skin" or are fat, a bad cook or an inactive slob.
Even if it's something you know the recipient needs, she says, it may not be what they want: "The problem is that gifts are associated with indulgence. That can make health gifts problematic."
But not impossible. To help givers sort through the potential pitfalls and payoffs of several kinds of healthy gifts, we sought advice from Yarrow, a psychology and marketing professor emeritus at Golden Gate University, San Francisco, and from three other experts: Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian in Plano, Texas, and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; San Diego personal trainer Pete McCall, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise; and Sam Moulton, senior editor of Outside magazine.
Here's what you need to know if you are thinking of giving ...
A healthy cookbook or diet book
(including any of those popular titles about how carbs or meat or processed foods are killing us).
• Something to consider: Does the recipient actually cook?
• Who might love this: Someone who has raved about these very recipes. Someone who has just become a vegetarian (or low-carb or paleo) eater and is eager to learn more.
• Who might hate it: Someone who has expressed no interest or — worse — extreme skepticism or distaste for the style of eating promoted in the book.
• Alternatives: Lemond suggests a generous produce basket or a gift card to a farmer's market. Yarrow suggests that a group of friends might make a no-unhealthy gifts pledge — and agree not to send one another cookies and fudge.
A big piece of fitness equipment — such as a treadmill or elliptical machine.
• Something to consider: If you can afford commercial-grade equipment (or find it used at a discount), get it, McCall says. It will last longer. Also, make sure there's a good place for this machine in the home.
• Who might love this: Someone who is committed to a fitness routine but just can't make it to the gym.
• Who might hate this: Someone who talks a lot about getting fit, but has not taken the first steps. You may be buying them "an expensive clothes hanger," McCall says.
• Alternative: Get them a subscription to a streaming fitness video series — for variety of home workouts at much less cost, McCall suggests.
A snazzy new fitness tracker.
• Something to consider: Most trackers count steps, but other features — from sleep-tracking to inactivity alarms — can vary. So can designs, from colorful wrist-bands to discrete clip-ons. So it pays to know what the recipient would prefer and use.
• Who might love this: The tech-savvy person who is already active (and who does not want to wait for Apple Watch, coming in early 2015). Even non-exercisers who love gadgets might be pulled in by all the know-thyself stats, McCall says.
• Who might hate this: The tech-averse couch potato. "You can't push fitness on people," Lemond says.
• Alternative: Get the new or infrequent exerciser some warm outdoor exercise clothes — a lined pullover, gloves and hat — to encourage them to keep going through the winter, McCall suggests.
Outdoor activity gear
— such as a bike or kayak.
• Something to consider: If you are buying a big item that must fit the recipient (think paddle and bike sizes), get it from a local retailer, rather than online, Moulton says. You will save shipping costs and make returns and adjustments easier.
• Who might love this: An outdoor activity enthusiast unable to splurge on a big item.
• Who might hate it: Someone who does not have the storage space or additional gear needed (think a car rack for that kayak).
• Alternatives: For someone who already has the big stuff, get some accessories: bike lights, goggles, ski socks or lift tickets (at liftopia.com). For a water lover with limited storage space, Moulton suggests an inflatable stand-up paddle board
A health club membership or fitness class sessions
• Something to consider: Does the recipient like this kind of exercise? Outdoor walkers may hate the gym; weight lifters may scoff at yoga.
• Who might love this: A fitness buff new to a community and in need of a gym; an all-around exercise fanatic always eager to try new workouts or studios.
• Who might hate it: Someone who prefers to exercise alone or — despite all the benefits — not at all.
• Alternative: Spring for a fun and coincidentally healthy dancing or cooking class you take together, Lemond suggests. If it's for a spouse or partner, "call it date night," she says. Or pay for a few private sessions with a personal trainer, McCall says. You can find one at acefitness.org.