How volunteering affects your health

Mass General Brigham is committed to working with community residents and organizations to make measurable, sustainable improvements in the health status of underserved populations. As part of this commitment, we want to acknowledge International Volunteer Day, which falls on December 5, recognized by the United Nations as a way to “highlight the power of our collective humanity to drive positive change through volunteerism.” This recognition comes at the start of National Giving Month, an effort highlighting the work of nonprofits and the generosity and volunteerism that fuels them.

There’s little doubt that volunteering makes a significant impact on communities and individuals, and here’s one more reason to consider finding these opportunities: It can be a major health booster. Here are some ways volunteering can affect your physical and mental well-being.

Improves heart health

When you volunteer, it can be said you have a good heart — and that might be true. Research in the journal Innovation in Aging looked at nearly 20,000 people participating in a decade-long study on lifestyle habits and found that those who did the most volunteering tended to have a lower risk for high blood pressure.

Those researchers noted that this could come from the way volunteer activity calms the cardiovascular system, and they added that previous research has linked volunteerism to lower levels of inflammation, better cholesterol management, and reduced incidence of heart failure.

Boosts brain function

Volunteering tends to bring together social connection and physical activity, and that can be a powerful combination for better cognitive functioning, according to a research review in the Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare. Researchers noted that dementia risk goes up with factors like isolation and sedentary behavior, which means that volunteer work might provide some protection when it comes to preserving cognitive ability.

They point out that other research looking at volunteer activity and cognitive outcomes has found significant improvements in functions like memory, organization, planning, time management, and focus.

Reduces stress responses

When it comes to a destructive force for your health, stress is near the top of the list. The American Psychological Association notes that chronic stress can disrupt almost all your body’s processes, from hormone regulation to digestion, sleep, memory, and cardiovascular functions. This type of stress can also lower immune system efficiency, making you more prone to illness and infection.  

Researchers looking at the impact of volunteering on stress response found that on days when participants had been doing charitable work, they were able to handle stress more effectively. The researchers noted that this is likely because volunteering leads to greater feelings of purpose and self-efficacy, which can improve how you deal with stress daily.

There may be a physiological component to this as well. Research in Social Science & Medicine assessed whether volunteering could suppress cortisol, the hormone that surges when you feel overwhelmed or stressed. Through analyzing hormone levels on both volunteering and non-volunteering days, researchers found that cortisol decreased after a volunteer experience to such a degree that they recommended volunteer programs to mitigate stress and its impact on health.

Eases depression and anxiety

The effects of volunteerism can be so profound in terms of easing depression symptoms that a study in Frontiers in Psychology suggests it should be incorporated into depression treatment for adolescents. The impact can be robust at any age, however. For example, research in the journal Ageing & Society found that volunteering and charitable donations had a positive outcome on psychological well-being for those over age 55, even if the initial experience of volunteerism or giving happened years earlier.

That’s likely because volunteering can deepen feelings of satisfaction with your life overall. Research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies showed a correlation between volunteerism and happiness, and participants who volunteered for at least one month had better mental health than those who didn’t volunteer at all.

With all these advantages in mind, it may be worth considering whether you can add more volunteerism into your schedule in December and beyond. Feeling good while doing good can be a powerful way to help your community and support your health at the same time.

Learn more about Mass General Brigham’s commitment to the community.


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