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Can ‘Giving Back’ be a Way to Better Health?

By Martha Michael

Volunteering Can Be Healthy

If you’ve ever overextended yourself, burning the candle at both ends to serve others, you’ll understand the spirit of National Volunteer Month. Organizations across the U.S. recognize millions of faithful volunteers during the month of April. It’s an opportunity to offer thanks for the hours of service leading to the propagation of a myriad of non-profit charities while fueling the message that volunteering has merit.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service Office of Research and Policy Development, volunteers have greater functional ability, have lower mortality rates, and experience less depression than other individuals. A report from the organization says that research has targeted various age groups, finding that older individuals get more mental and physical benefits from volunteerism than younger volunteers do.

An article in Science Daily cites research at the University of Exeter Medical School showing the improved mental health experienced by those with a commitment to volunteerism. In addition to the 20 percent lower rate of mortality compared with non-volunteers, longitudinal cohort studies report better satisfaction and less depression. The research, led by Dr. Suzanne Richards, shows that adult volunteering among Australians is highest, with 36 percent, compared to Americans and Europeans.

When asked their motives, participants responded most often with “giving something back” to their communities or to charities that had supported them in the past. Sometimes volunteerism is for the purpose of work experience or for a social outlet, the report says.

Hit the Brakes!

The benefit to your health is maximized when you volunteer 100 hours per year or more, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) research shows. But how much is too much?

The CNCS points out a “volunteering threshold,” meaning there is a certain amount of service that grants you the greatest number of positive by-products. But giving more of your time doesn’t get you any more direct feedback. You need to commit to a fair level of volunteerism -- at least a few hours per week -- but to simply keep it in high gear doesn’t benefit anyone. Above a certain amount of time per week, you aren’t reaping additional benefits; however, individuals who volunteer for two or more charities show a 44 percent lower mortality rate over a five-year period than others.

An article in Science Alert says you have to take your foot off the gas sometimes and slow down. Dr. Tim Windsor from Australian National University Centre for Mental Health Research led a team of researchers who collected data from 1,000 individuals age 60 and older. While moderate volunteerism resulted in improved mental health, those who volunteered their time more than 15 hours per week had lower feelings of well-being and reduced mental health.

“The findings indicate that we need to make sure that volunteers aren’t being overburdened,” Dr. Windsor said. “Adequate government and community support of the volunteer sector is important to ensure that the burden of responsibility doesn’t fall to just a few, but is shared by many.”

Baby boomers up to their mid-50s are volunteering at a higher rate than earlier generations did at the same age, and it doesn’t look like it’s ending soon. The most active volunteers seem likely to continue the trend, and luckily, baby boomers are a motivated group who can help solve some of the country’s most challenging social problems.

Time in the Body Shop

If pain is something you live with, there are steps you can take to alleviate symptoms, and it may mean an increase or a decrease in how much time you give to others.

Research by the Corporation for National and Community Service shows that people in pain can decrease the pain’s intensity by offering to volunteer for others in the same boat. Serving their peers who have chronic pain can decrease some of the disability and depression that occurs while coping with illness.

The social part of spending time with and for others has perhaps the most positive effect. But while the sense of purpose contributes to healthy attitudes, you may be putting physical health risks into overdrive. Part of it depends on what type of volunteerism you have in mind.

If you’re a wilderness leader, your fitness level needs to be assessed in advance. If it involves backpacking with a 40-pound load, you want to build up to that. You aren’t a mule, and your back wasn’t designed to carry a large amount of weight. If you don’t build strength in your leg muscles, you risk injury from misalignment to long-term back strain. In the case of one of these problems, the best treatment is a visit to your chiropractor.

Are you a volunteer caregiver? It’s more than chatting with a patient -- it can be a tough job with physical demands. Again, you’ll get a lot more mileage out of your body if you’re lifting properly and getting help with heavy lifting. Ask your chiropractor for advice before taking on a commitment that contributes to joint dysfunction. Looking out for others doesn’t mean not looking out for yourself. Make sure to fill your own tank first!

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