Help for Your Health

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Volunteering is an excellent way to give back to your community. Whether it’s working with kids or elders, cleaning up a park, or walking dogs at a local shelter, offering just a few hours of your time can make a huge impact on others.

The cherry on top is that more and more research suggests that when you help others, you also reap health benefits for yourself—both mentally and physically.

Good for the Body…
According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, or CNCS, a federal agency that connects people to volunteer service, “Over the past two decades we have seen a growing body of research that indicates volunteering provides individual health benefits in addition to social ones.” CNCS aggregated much of this research into a 2007 report titled The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research, which found that “those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer.”

The report’s meta-analysis collected several studies. The findings are eye-opening:

  • States with the highest rates of volunteerism have lower incidences of heart disease and lower mortality rates than those with low rates of volunteering.
  • Volunteering and health are part of a self-reinforcing cycle—if you volunteer, you get physical and mental health benefits that allow you to continue to volunteer and get more physical and mental health benefits.
  • Older adults get the greatest boost to their physical health from volunteering.

Supporting evidence continues to grow. A 2015 article in the Atlantic noted that “People who volunteer lead longer, healthier lives. Some public health experts believe the time has come for doctors to recommend it alongside diet and exercise.”

The article cites two randomized controlled studies. The first followed Canadian tenth graders who volunteered in after-school programs that helped grade-school kids. The tenth graders lost weight and improved their cholesterol numbers as a group. The second study focused on older adults in St. Louis who volunteered for a child-tutoring program. The adults “demonstrated improvements in stamina, memory, and flexibility, as well as levels of depression.”

...and Good for the Mind
The mental benefits of volunteering have also gained attention. Teaching skills and tutoring can both contribute to sharpened mental acumen and in some cases can even help reverse declining brain function. The Atlantic article cites the theory—based on the research of Harvard School of Public Health researchers Sara Konrath and Eric Kim—that there’s another benefit: a sense of purpose. This, combined with other personality traits and default health behaviors, can lead individuals to take better care of themselves in the form of preventative care, from flu shots to mammograms.

In other words, volunteering is a win-win for everyone…with one catch. Konrath and Kim’s research shows that volunteers reap potential health benefits only if they volunteer for altruistic reasons rather than for the goal of feeling better themselves. “In an observational study, [Konrath] had found that people who volunteered for ‘self-oriented’ motives like ‘I need to get away from my problems’ had a mortality risk that was similar to non-volunteers,” the Atlantic article states.

All the more reason to find an organization to volunteer for that’s a good match for your own values and sensibilities. Then roll up your altruistic sleeves, get helping, and get healthy. Below are a few resources to get you started:

Ten Tips for Volunteering: Start with this list from the Corporation for National and Community Service. It’s especially helpful if you’re just getting started.

VolunteerMatch: This easy-to-use site helps you find volunteer opportunities right in your community. You can search by entering your location and an issue you care about, or browse on your own. There’s also a calendar function, and it’s easy to sign up for match alerts.

Idealist: This site’s mission is to connect people who want to do good with opportunities for action and collaboration. The interface is incredibly simple, removing any clutter and leaving you with events, organizations, and even paid jobs related to your interests and location.

Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.


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