Recent Study Says That Volunteering Boosts Health and Well-Being
A new study looking into the effects of volunteering on people aged 50 and over, found that it increased physical activity, improved optimism and even reduced the risk of death. Photo: Photo: Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images
September 5 marks the International Day of Charity, a United Nations initiative “established with the objective of sensitizing and mobilizing people, NGOs, and stakeholders all around the world to to help others through volunteer and philanthropic activities.” The UN website also notes it chose the date “to commemorate the anniversary of the passing away of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 ‘for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitute a threat to peace.’
So to mark the occasion we’re revisiting our June 2020 story about how volunteering not only improves the lives of others, but it could also hold health benefits for the volunteers as well.
If you were looking for another reason to roll up your sleeves and volunteer your time, findings from a new study show that doing good for others does us good, too. And who couldn’t use a little of that — especially these days.
When researchers looked at the effects of volunteering on people aged 50 and over, they discovered that it increased physical activity, improved optimism and even reduced the risk of death.
“Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others,” said lead investigator Eric S. Kim, PhD, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard University.
How Much Matters
Nearly 13,000 Americans, with an average age of 66, were asked if they’d spent any time in the past 12 months volunteering for religious, educational, health-care or other charitable organizations and, for how long.
Only those who had committed 100 or more hours a year of their time (about two hours a week) saw a boon to their physical and psychological health — most notably, a 44 per cent reduced risk of mortality over a followup period of four years.
“Regular altruistic activity reduces our risk of death even though our study didn’t show any direct impact on a wide array of chronic conditions,” said Kim in a press release.
Of course COVID-19 makes volunteering in person trickier, especially for people at increased risk — including those over 60 and with underlying health conditions — but where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Volunteer Canada works to connect volunteers with organizations in need — but helping out can be done remotely. Virtual volunteers do everything from translation to tutoring either online or over the phone.
With a multitude of skills and decades of experience, older adults represent a rich resource and sharing with others has a reciprocal benefit, noted Kim.
“Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn’t just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness.”
Although more research is recommended to pinpoint what exactly it is about volunteerism that is so good for us, more of it should be encouraged to foster healthy aging, study authors concluded in a paper published Thursday by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
According to Statistics Canada, volunteers aged 64 to 75 contribute the most time of any age demographic, with an average of 231 hours annually. And, a little less than a third of all volunteers in Canada are 55-plus.