Want to improve your health almost instantly? Then try giving up your seat on the bus, help out at the local food pantry, or lend a hand on that D.I.Y. project your elderly neighbor has been working on for far too long. Doing so can put you on the path to better health.
Volunteering—being of service to others without expecting anything in return—is good for boosting spirit and soul, not to mention building up those good karma reserves. What most people don’t realize is that such altruistic behaviors reward the giver with physical benefits too—making service to others a health-boosting behavior. What’s in it for you? Take a look:
1. You’ll Protect Yourself Against Depression
When you volunteer, social connection, interaction, and cooperation are part of the deal. By working cooperatively with others, not only do you flex your mental muscles and polish up your interpersonal skills, but you’ll expand your live social network—not just your virtual one. This social growth helps reduce isolation, which in turn helps cut the risk for depression. In short—more connection, less depression. (Take that, Facebook.)
2. You’ll Get a Bit of a Drug-Free High
With selfless service often comes the volunteer’s version of the runner’s high. For many people, performing charitable acts, volunteering, or even simply writing a check to support a good cause can trigger the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin into the bloodstream. The results? A naturally induced reduction in anxiety levels, less stress-triggered cortisol circulating throughout the body, and generally more positive feelings toward yourself and your fellow man. In other words, volunteering is feel-good time for you and a helping hand for someone in need—everybody wins.
3. You Can Expect to Live Better, Healthier, and Longer
While the exact mechanisms aren’t fully understood, recent studies point to some very interesting, health-enhancing side effects of giving to others. Topping the list: lower mortality rates and lower risk of blood-pressure problems. Researchers have also seen reductions in the symptoms of heart disease and chronic pain, as well as boosted immunoglobulin A levels (which enhances immune function).
4. You’ll Rock That Beachwear Like Never Before
While neighborly acts and volunteering is by no means a replacement for Zumba class, chances are, your service to others will literally keep you on your toes—and off your duff. Going out into the world to volunteer will help put some distance between you and the computer/tablet/TV screens that keep you dangerously inactive for hours at a time.
The increased physical activity, subtle as it may seem, will give back to your body such benefits as better circulation, better cardiovascular health, and reduced risk of premature death. It may even help keep you trim enough to hit the beach next summer in a two-piece bathing suit, so get an altruistic move on!
5. You’ll Feel Good All Over—and Be Healthier for It
When United Healthcare/Volunteer Match did an online survey of more than 4,500 frequent, regular volunteers, the overwhelming majority reported significant positive impact on their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Feelings of happiness, well-being, less stress, better physical health, and hopefulness went hand-in-hand with volunteering, as did better sleep and reductions in chronic pain—making service to others a particularly healthful activity for seniors.
While there’s little downside to being a good neighbor, as with most things, balance is key. By all means, do your best, just not to the point where the activity adds to your stress, becomes an unpleasant obligation, or starts to burn you out. Take selflessness too far, you’ll undo the positive side effects and potentially undermine your health—so remember to keep your kindness within reason, so that both giver and recipient get the best of you.