The Health Benefits of Giving Back

The Health Benefits of Giving Back

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.”

When Elizabeth Andrew made this remark, she knew that volunteers had heart, but she may not have realized that volunteering can actually keep that heart healthy.

While helping others at any age is always good for the soul, the benefits of volunteering over the age of 65 may be more tangible.  Mental and physical health benefits can vary depending on the amount and type of volunteering you choose to engage in, but there is no doubt that giving your time, effort, and energy to helping others will have a positive impact on everyone involved.

Senior volunteers, specifically, are invaluable contributors to many communities through local, national, and global organizations, but can time spent helping others actually keep you living a longer, healthier and more active life? Research indicates that there is a direct correlation between volunteerism and good health.

How should seniors volunteer to improve or maintain their health?

While there is never a wrong way to give your time to a good cause, studies have shown that there are a few factors that can affect the impact your volunteerism has on your overall health, including age, time devoted to volunteering, and the activity involved. 

Age

With age comes experience, knowledge, and hopefully some hard-earned wisdom, but it can also be accompanied by changes in your life, including retirement, changes in living arrangements, and loss of friends and family members. Volunteering can be a vital tool used by seniors to combat feelings of uselessness or isolation. Your initial motivation may be less altruistic than practical, but as you work in the service of others, you may find that you become more passionate about the work itself and when your health starts to improve, you will be encouraged to continue volunteering.

Time

According to the American Psychological Association, adults over the age of 50 who volunteer 200 hours within a one-year period are less likely to develop high blood pressure and chronic disease and more likely to show improvements in their psychological health as well. Not only do these health benefits improve with the level of time commitment, but the routine of volunteering on a regular schedule keeps you active, social, and energized. Seniors who have retired or have cut back on full-time careers have a unique opportunity to use their extra time to positively affect the lives of others while simultaneously improving their own health.

Activity

Find an activity that suits you. Senior volunteers can use their skills, talent, and enthusiasm to find an opportunity to stay engaged, stimulated, and busy. If you are not restricted by any physical limitations, consider a volunteer position that will keep you moving. Staying physically active will improve circulation, lower blood pressure, and promote cardiovascular health. If your doctor recommends it or you prefer to volunteer in a less active setting, consider mentally stimulating work. Perhaps you can volunteer to tutor students or participate in reading programs at a local library or recreation center. Choose opportunities that can sharpen your own cognitive and memory skills while giving back to others.

Physical benefits of senior volunteering

The physical benefits of volunteering are endless. Aside from the improved mental health that is often connected to one’s physical well-being, senior volunteers enjoy:

  • lowered risk of heart disease and stroke
  • reduced symptoms of chronic pain
  • improvement in digestive disorders
  • greater functional ability

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations of weekly activity could certainly be accomplished through volunteering. Let’s review the AHA activity guidelines:

  • at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity of aerobic activity at least 5 days per week for a total of 150 or
  • at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week for a total of 75 minute or
  • a combination of moderate and vigorous intensity aerobic activity for overall cardiovascular health

The AHA also suggests moderate to high intensity muscle strengthening activity at least 2 days per week for additional health benefits. To lower blood pressure and cholesterol, specifically, the AHA recommends an average of 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity 3-4 times per week.[1]

Can volunteering really help you meet these health guidelines outlined by the American Heart Association?  Absolutely! Volunteering with children is always a great way to get lots of activity in. You can look into after-school programs that help working parents by providing a safe environment for their young children. They often welcome volunteers from the community to help supervise and organize activities or sports for the children. Volunteering to walk dogs for the home-bound, working in a neighborhood garden, or providing respite care for local caregivers can help you meet your weekly activity goals.

Project-Based Senior Volunteering Opportunities

If you have the ability to do more project-focused volunteerism, you might consider volunteer groups that help with local home renovations for those in need, or groups like Habitat for Humanity that can help you build homes nearby. These projects take a lot of strength and energy, but if your doctor approves, you may really enjoy the chance to volunteer in such a specific project.

If you enjoy traveling, you may consider volunteering in places struck by natural disasters. Sadly, there are no shortages in cities across the country and world that have been affected by hurricanes, earthquakes, and flooding. If your health allows it and you are inclined to help, there are opportunities to be extremely active while providing much-needed assistance.

The Effects of Senior Volunteerism on Mental Health

Don’t underestimate the impact your mental health can have on your physical well-being. Mental health issues can be significant for people over the age of 65 when seniors are more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness, sadness, or isolation. When these symptoms are consistent and accompanied by a lack of energy, sleep problems, a loss of interest in socializing, and overall despair, you may actually be experiencing signs of depression and anxiety.

Depression has been proven to raise a senior’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis, and can lead to alcohol and/or substance abuse. Staying active with senior volunteering opportunities can provide much needed structure, socialization, and a renewed sense of purpose within the community.  Confidence, self-esteem, and positivity can keep feelings of hopelessness and sadness at bay, leading to better emotional health.

The psychological and physical benefits of volunteering for seniors are well documented. Volunteers over the age of 50 are likely to live longer and healthier lives. Helping others is always a win-win for everyone involved, so take advantage of opportunities to volunteer.


[1] American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults; July 27, 2016; American Heart Association; http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/American-Heart-Association-Recommendations-for-Physical-Activity-in-Adults_UCM_307976_Article.jsp#.Wh9orq2ZPow