Let's just state, right up front, that it's tough to go wrong with any of the tried and true Valentine's Day gifts.
Chocolates? Flowers? Dinner at your favorite place? All fine. And safe. But a little boring.
You know you can do better.
This year, why not think outside the candy box, and get the one you love a gift that's thoughtful, sexy, good for your relationship and good for your health.
That's right — love (and, yes, sex) can have all kinds of health benefits, from boosting immunity and lowering your cholesterol to helping you ditch some of the stress that otherwise can drag you down.
"Positive interactions definitely can increase all kinds of things chemically in your body — but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually, it can improve your health overall," says Yvonka De Ridder, founder and CEO of Loving Life Therapy in Tampa.
How can you tap into some of those feel-good chemicals with a Valentine's Day gift? Here are some suggestions:
Get in touch with a massage
Touch is soothing, healing, stress reducing, and it also releases oxytocin, the love hormone, say clinical sexologists and relationship counselors Chuck and Jo-ann Bird of the Center for Life, Relationship and Sexual Wellness in Tampa.
Oxytocin is usually released in large doses after an orgasm, "But we know from research that just touching and hugging can release oxytocin," Chuck Bird says. "It helps create that emotional bond."
Of course, a massage is meant to relax you — and anything that lowers stress is good for your health. But all that physical pleasure just might help rev you up for more intimacy later. And sex is great exercise! It burns calories (about 100 for men and 69 for women during the average 25-minute romp, according to 2013 research from the University of Montreal). It gets your heart pumping. And it helps release the hormone prolactin, which can have positive side effects for your metabolism and immune system, and can help you sleep.
Some spas also offer massage lessons, so you can enjoy a massage from your partner at home. (Couples massages range in price from about $100 an hour to $350 and up, depending on services offered, such as saunas or facials.)
Try a change of place for dinner
If a meal out is a must, change it up a bit. Couples tend to hit the same two or three restaurants time and again because they're comfortable, Chuck Bird says.
"Choose something new. Go to the beach and have a picnic instead of dinner," he says. Or try a different restaurant. "It puts that new energy back into a relationship."
Keeping things interesting helps keep the passion in a relationship, the Birds say. How does that affect your health? Studies have linked being happily married with lower incidences of stress, depression, social isolation and heart disease. It might even improve your chances of cancer survival, if only because someone is looking out for you. On the flip side, marital discord has been linked to stroke, heart disease and even suicide in men.
Expand your mind with a class
If you share an interest, or need a new one, why not take a class together? Foodies can check out cooking and wine-tasting events at several locations in the Tampa Bay area, including the Epicurean Hotel in Tampa, Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium in Brandon and Nature's Food Patch Market & Café in Clearwater. (All have Valentine's-related events this month, ranging from a free wine preview at Nature's Food Patch, naturesfoodpatch.com, to $75-per-person cooking classes at the Rolling Pin, rollingpinonline.com.) "It's a fun night out, the meal or wine is included, and it will give you something to talk about and try at home," Jo-ann Bird says.
Learning to cook also can help couples get healthier for the long-term. Home cooks can focus on making more nutritious meals, lower the fat in their recipes and support each other in choosing better ingredients when they grocery shop.
Call for help
Couples tend to lose spontaneity and intimacy when they have children, and often it's because they simply need more help, says De Ridder, a clinical sexologist and licensed marriage and family therapist. "When you have kids, you always hear 'Your life is over.' That's the go-to phrase. I think the belief is still so prominent in our society, we think that and have it."
But there are more resources for getting assistance today than ever before, she says. And people shouldn't be afraid or embarrassed to hire some help, whether it's a full-time nanny, a lawn-mowing service, a weekly cleaning service or a date-night babysitter. What you're giving is the gift of time, with the hope of lowering stress.
The American Psychological Association says chronic stress can lead to headaches, fatigue and depression. And the longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body.
De Ridder is a big fan of date nights, so couples can relax and reconnect. But don't just go to the movies, she warns — "because your attention isn't on each other."
Bring sexy back with lingerie
If you're thinking, "What's new about this?" wait for the twist: This year, buy that satin kimono ($49.50 at victoriassecret.com) or a pair of boxer briefs ($10 at hm.com) for yourself, but give it as a gift to your significant other. (Wrap it up or model it — your choice.)
Choosing your own come-hither wardrobe means you're in charge of finding what makes you feel sexy.
"The more sexy, comfortable and confident you feel, that's going to translate," Jo-ann Bird says.
Feeling sensual tends to lead to better sex, and that means more orgasms. Which takes us back to those feel-good hormones that flood your system when all goes well.
But there are even more benefits: Passionate sex can lower your blood pressure. It can block pain. And when a woman has an orgasm, her pelvic floor muscles contract and strengthen. (End result: better bladder control.)
Schedule a well-couple visit
If this suggestion makes you groan, just sit with it a minute.
"I'm thinking of coming up with a new word for relationship counseling or marriage counseling, because people say, 'We don't have a problem,' " De Ridder says. But what she's proposing is an occasional check-in "because there's always more to learn."
It might not seem very romantic, but it could be the best gift you can give. (Hourlong sessions run from about $75 an hour to $200 or more.)
Learning to really listen and respect your partner is a healthy thing, she says. "You become proud of yourself, and become proud of your partner and your relationship, so it increases your affection."
And that's something everyone can use, she says. "Love, basically, is what we live for."
Contact Kim Franke-Folstad at firstname.lastname@example.org.