Helping Hands, Willing Hearts

Article adapted from Harvard Health Publishing & alive.com

If you do volunteer work, you would have experienced the emotional rewards of donating your time. What you might not realise however, is that volunteering may offer some added advantages for your heart.

“There’s a growing body of research showing that volunteering is associated with better physical and mental health outcomes,” says Eric S. Kim, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A study he co-authored, published in Social Science and Medicine, found that volunteers were more likely to use preventive health care services. For instance, people who volunteered were 47% more likely to get cholesterol checks.

Measurable Gains
Research has found that people who volunteered on a regular basis (at least 200 hours a year) were 40% less likely to develop high blood pressure over a four-year period than non-volunteers. Volunteers also had greater increases in psychological well-being and physical activity.

Another intriguing potential benefit is that volunteering may give people a greater sense of purpose in life. There are three elements to a sense of purpose: a sense of meaning, a sense of direction, and a goal to strive for. In recent years, research on health and longevity has expanded to focus more on such positive emotions.

“We know that stress, depression, and anger all have negative effects on the body, especially with regard to the risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Kim. The opposite emotions and mindsets — satisfaction and optimism — are closely linked to (but not necessarily synonymous with) a sense of purpose, he adds. Yet a sense of purpose is associated with better heart health above and beyond the effects of optimism and a positive outlook.

In fact, a report in Psychosomatic Medicine that pooled findings from 10 different studies found that people with a high sense of purpose in life had a lower risk of having a cardiovascular event (such as a heart attack or stroke) and of dying from any cause, compared with people who had a lower sense of purpose.

In addition, more than 75% of volunteers indicated that volunteering made them feel physically better and that they felt their health had improved over the previous year. This could be because volunteers are more likely to seek out information on their health, making them more engaged patients. Volunteers with chronic health issues are better able to manage their illness by staying active and keeping their mind focused on other tasks.

How To Get Started?
So should you choose to volunteer, remember not to overcommit. Start small and be honest with yourself about how much time you can spare. For instance, begin with a single event or project, instead of a long-term commitment. Once you are comfortable with the organisation and have a better idea of how much time you can reasonably give, you can then decide on what works best for you. Consider also your personal goals for learning and development. This will help you find the right volunteering experience and ensure that it is a fulfilling match.

Have fun and enjoy the meaningful experience that volunteering brings!

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