Weekly health rail, with items on massage, research that shows sugar is addictive, ice skating safety tips, and more.

As Americans get into the full swing of the holiday season, massage therapy can be a winning addition to holiday planning and shopping lists.

Massage therapy gift certificates are surefire holiday gifts. What's more, massage is a "green gift" -- one that fits the increasing consumer preference for experiential gifts instead of more "stuff."

- Respite from the rush: As well as making a great gift, massage is ideal for stressed-out shoppers, holiday travelers, party-givers and people hosting family gatherings. A bonus for these folks is that shopping malls and airports are increasingly offering chair massage -- a quick and inexpensive remedy for shoulders and necks burdened by shopping bags and luggage.

Chair massage is performed in a private or semi-private setting in a special, ergonomic chair and usually costs $1 a minute.

- What you need to know: For best results, find a qualified massage therapist from the thousands of practitioners listed at www.massagetherapy.com.

Some massage therapists offer gift packages for a series of massage sessions. Most can sell gift certificates over the phone and mail them, and some Web sites even allow consumers to print the certificates themselves.

- A gift of lasting value: Massage will be the gift that keeps on giving as clients enjoy not only relaxation, but the health benefits of massage. In addition to providing relief from anxiety, pain and stress, research shows massage provides beneficial effects to the immune system and lessens the frequency of headaches.

While massage may be perceived as a luxury by some, these health benefits are becoming more widely understood as medical professionals increasingly recommend massage for various conditions, especially back pain and sports injuries.

-- ARA

Scientists: Sugar can be addictive

Through studies with lab rats, a team of researchers at Princeton University has found evidence that sugar can be an addictive substance.

In the experiments, rats that were trained to become dependent on high doses of sugar showed a pattern of increased intake and signs of withdrawal, craving and relapse – all evidence of addiction.

The “sugar-bingeing” rats underwent neurochemical changes in the brain that appear to mimic those produced by substances of abuse, including cocaine, morphine and nicotine.

The team found that dopamine is released in the brain when the rats eat the sugar solution. This chemical signal is thought to trigger motivation and, eventually with repetition, addiction. The research is expected to help in human studies of addiction and eating disorders.

-- Princeton University

Did You Know?

A new study found that when dieters eliminate carbohydrates from their meals, they performed more poorly on memory-based tasks. -- Tufts University

Health Tip

Ice skating is a fun winter activity, and also a great exercise. The National Safety Council offers these tips to help you and your family enjoy safe skating.

- Wear skates that fit comfortably and provide enough ankle support to keep you on your feet.

- Have the blades professionally sharpened at the beginning of each season.

- Skate only on specially prepared skating areas where you are sure the ice is strong enough to withstand your weight.

- Always check for cracks, holes and other debris.

- Before setting out on your skating expedition, learn basic skating skills, such as how to stop and fall safely.

- Wear warm clothing, and rest when you become tired or cold.

- Never skate alone.

Number to Know: 30

Percent of people who said they’ve been vaccinated against the flu this season, according to a survey of 4,000 adult Americans in mid-November. – Rand Health

Children’s Health

Ninety percent of girls and 75 percent of boys ages 9 to 13 do not get the 1,300 milligrams of daily calcium recommended by doctors, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. What's more, the majority of parents (60 percent) aren't sure how much calcium their kids get each day, according to a 2007 survey.

Bone-healthy foods include foods rich in calcium, along with those enhanced with prebiotics - non-digestible, soluble fiber that can significantly boost calcium absorption by encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria in the body.

In addition to serving bone-healthy foods, parents can help kids build and maintain healthy bones by encouraging them to exercise. Bones, just like muscles, become stronger through regular athletic activity.

-- ARA

Senior Health

A new study found that adults in their 60s and 70s can improve a number of cognitive functions by playing a strategic video game.

After testing several video games, the researchers selected "Rise of Nations," which gives gamers points for building cities and "wonders," feeding and employing their people, maintaining an adequate military and expanding their territory.

The researchers found that the gamers became significantly better – and faster – at switching between tasks. Their working memory and reasoning ability was also improved. To a lesser extent, their short-term memory of visual cues was better than that of their peers.

-- University of Illinois

GateHouse News Service