5 Surprising Ways Volunteering Improves Your Physical Health

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It's good to do good, and that's true for the doer as much as the receiver. It's easy to understand how donating your time to a hospital or after-school program can benefit those you're helping. What's surprising is that volunteering may be giving you the biggest boost of all. Giving back goes full circle, and we've got some surprising stats to prove it.

Get What You Give

Most people want to volunteer, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about one in four Americans do. Three-quarters of the people in that equation may not realize what they're missing. Helping others doesn't just put you in a good mood — it can also boost your health.

So, what exactly can volunteering do to power-up your physical well-being?

  1. It can lower the health effects of stress. Whether it's a tough day at work or a conflict at home, even the most benevolent among us have some stress in their lives. Two national studies published in 2013 found that helping others can ease the impact that everyday stress has on your physical health.
  2. It reduces the risk of drug abuse. In 2015, The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior published a literature review showing that teenagers and college students who volunteer tend to steer clear of alcohol and drugs, along with other "problem behaviors" like delinquency and dropping out of school.
  3. It can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Volunteering is a sneaky way to get out of the house and step away from the screens for a bit. As a result, it could aid in weight loss and lower your cholesterol. A 2013 study showed that 10th graders who volunteered in an after-school program lost more weight and had improved cholesterol profiles compared to their non-volunteering peers.
  4. It can lower your risk of death. All those health boosts add up as you get older. In 2013, a study in the journal Psychology and Aging showed that volunteering reduced mortality risk in older adults by a quarter, even when the researchers accounted for how healthy they were before the study began.
  5. It can release happy hormones. Ever heard of a "helper's high"? Many studies show that volunteers have lower rates of depression, higher levels of self-esteem, and greater functional ability than those who don't volunteer. In fact, one 2005 study showed that volunteers who gave social support experienced greater benefits than the people receiving their support. So what's going on? In the simplest form, when we give to others without expecting anything in return, our brains release dopamine, serotonin, and other hormones that make you feel warm and tingly inside.

Daily Dose of Helping

You might expect to start reading about some downsides to volunteering at this point. Nope. As long as your volunteering efforts align with a cause that's personally important to you, there don't seem to be any cons to lending a hand. Eric S. Kim, a research fellow at Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health, believes research supports the idea that volunteering should be prescribed by doctors to all patients, just like eating veggies and working out.

"The research on smoking is not experimental; it's the exact same quality as the studies of volunteering," Konrath tells the Atlantic. "It's based on following people over time and seeing what happens to people who choose to smoke or choose to volunteer. Yet doctors have no trouble telling us to stop smoking. What they ignore is that most of the context of our day-to-day lives is embedded within relationships. The number and quality of those relationships strongly influences health. I've been looking at this for years now, and I haven't found a study where volunteering didn't affect health positively in some way."

Takin' It to the Streets

Feeling all revved up about giving back? The State Farm Neighborhood of Good® website offers helpful ways you can get started on finding a volunteering opportunity that matches your interests. Search for volunteer work based on what you care about and where you live and the Neighborhood of Good site will provide a list of relevant opportunities in your area. Who knows? You may discover a cause you're passionate about right around the corner.

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Written by Joanie Faletto January 10, 2018
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