Want to live a long, healthy (and happy) life? Next time someone asks for volunteers, raise your hand. That’s the advice of dozens of researchers who’ve found that helping others can protect you from pretty serious health conditions like heart disease and depression.
In celebration of International Volunteer Day, December 5, let us celebrate the many health benefits of volunteering. By all means, volunteer to help others. That’s the point, after all. But don’t be surprised if you get a pretty healthy payback.
Check out this list of perks:
1. You’ll See the Cup Half Full
Researchers aren’t entirely sure which comes first: a positive attitude and greater self-esteem or volunteering, but study after study shows a relationship between the two. So if you’re feeling down about yourself, sign up for some projects and see if it boosts your spirits.
2. You’ll Protect Your Heart
A study at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who volunteered at least three hours per week reduced their risk of high blood pressure by 40 percent, compared to those who did no volunteer work.
What’s the connection? It may be that volunteers are more physically active than people who don’t volunteer, says lead researcher Rodlescia Sneed, Ph.D. Helping others may also relieve stress, which contributes to high blood pressure. “Volunteering may help you relax and get outside your own problems,” says Sneed. In a study at the University of British Columbia, researchers found a similar heart-health benefit among groups of teenagers who spent one hour per week working with elementary school kids in after-school programs in their neighborhoods. After 10 weeks, the teenagers had lower levels of inflammation and cholesterol than the control group, and reduced their Body Mass Index (BMI) more, too.
3. You’ll Be Happier
Plagued by depression? Pitch in, says researchers who analyzed the data in the Americans’ Changing Lives survey and found that volunteering can alleviate depression, especially for adults over 65. If you’re younger than 65, it may take more time for the antidepressant effect of volunteering to kick in, so don’t give up.
4. You’ll Feel Less Pain
It’s true! Helping others can ease chronic pain, according to researchers at Boston College, who saw the pain intensity scores for people with chronic pain drop after volunteering. Participants credited connecting with others and feeling a sense of purpose for soothing their suffering.
5. You’ll Get Off the Couch More
Sure, certain types of volunteering involve sitting on your tush (volunteering to call fellow alumni for your alma mater, for example), but others require physical activity like serving food, gardening, clearing litter, doing light construction, and interacting with children. All of these activities engage the muscles and juice the joints.
6. You’ll Be Mentally Sharp
Volunteering can boost your brain power, according to a study at Johns Hopkins that evaluated seniors who participated in Experience Corps, a program that pairs students with adults for tutoring in math and other academic areas. Turns out students weren’t the only ones improving their scores. Using MRIs on the tutors’ brains, researchers documented improvements in the areas of the brain that influence cognitive functioning.
7. You’ll Live Longer
It’s a plain fact: People who volunteer live longer than those who don’t. Dozens of studies support this conclusion — and you only need to volunteer 100 hours a year to reap the benefits.
How to Become a Volunteer
First, decide what’s important to you whether it’s education, the environment, gardening, sports, hospice, the elderly, or the arts, then look for opportunities in those areas.
You might tutor at your local public school, get involved with a community garden, help coach a club team, read books at a nursing home, provide comfort for the sick and dying, or give tours at a museum. You want to feel engaged not obligated.
Research shows that people who volunteer for the love of it rather than to feel better about themselves benefit more. Check in with your local church, YMCA, school, recreation center, or museums or go to volunteermatch.org to find the perfect math for your passion.
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