When choosing to volunteer for a community nonprofit, church or school, you usually focus on how your efforts can help others. You may not think about how volunteering can help your own health.
"There are numerous studies that show volunteers reap benefits for their physical, mental and emotional health," says Mirelle Marquez, MD, a family medicine physician at
St. Mary High Desert Medical Group in Hesperia. "They can range from a greater sense of happiness and reduced anxiety to lower blood pressure and even a longer lifespan."
The greatest effect volunteering has on well-being is generally seen in a person's later years, when they are 50 or older. There are a few different reasons for this, Dr. Marquez says. "First, seniors are winding down their career years and their children have grown, which often leaves them more time for volunteering. Service work can help seniors navigate that transitional time. It's a time when there also can be major changes to a person's health, both physically and mentally, and therefore the positive aspects of helping others can have a measurable effect. For instance, cleaning up trash at a beach is a physical activity that can help seniors stay active and healthy, while something like tutoring can keep the mind sharp. Volunteering can help foster independence during a time of life when age-related issues can bring major lifestyle changes."
Dr. Marquez adds that you don't have to wait until you are older to volunteer. While many studies focus more on the benefits of community service to older people, it's never too early to start a habit that can have long-term value for your wellness. "However, a Health Psychology study notes that you have to volunteer for the right reasons—if there's an ulterior motive other than helping people, you can't reap the benefits," Dr. Marquez says.
So what are those benefits? Several studies point to lower mortality rates for people who volunteer, compared to people who don't. And a recent study in Psychology and Aging found people who were 50 or older and who volunteered about 200 hours a year had lower blood pressure than non-volunteers. "The thinking is that volunteering keeps people active and reduces stress, thus maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. That's important because high blood pressure can be a risk factor for stroke, heart attack and death," says Dr. Marquez, who adds that other studies have shown positive results of volunteering at 100 hours a year. Another study found that volunteers who had suffered chronic pain problems experienced decreased pain levels when helping people with similar issues.
The psychological advantages of volunteering are also important. "Getting out in the community and serving can prevent feelings of isolation, which can guard against depression," Dr. Marquez says. "It becomes a social network—working together with a group of people toward a common goal—that not only provides the opportunity to make new friends and form relationships and connections, but also offers a sense of self-esteem and purpose. If you encounter a crisis or feel depressed, you have that social net to fall back on. That's called social integration theory. Studies have shown that feeling of accomplishment in volunteers generates greater satisfaction with life compared to those who work; people age 65 and older report lower rates of depression if they are active in community service." In fact, a London School of Economics study found that people reported greater levels of happiness the more often they volunteered.
"That's the great thing about volunteering—it helps everyone," Dr. Marquez adds. "The community is the better for it, as well as the volunteer. And as the volunteers experience the positive effects with their mental, emotional and physical health, they will continue to volunteer and contribute—it's a never-ending cycle that can reap rich rewards."
For more information on St. Mary High Desert Medical Group, click here. For more information about Dr. Marquez,