aging well

The Health Benefits of Volunteering

group helping pick up garbageKathy Ziprik has the cure for those days when her work stress gets to be too much. She rewards herself with a stop at the Henderson County Animal Shelter in Hendersonville, North Carolina. There she spends an hour taking five dogs on walks or plays with the pups who need extra attention to build their trust in humans.

The seven hours Kathy puts in weekly as a shelter volunteer is great for the dogs, but she quickly notes how good it is for her as well. "Every hour you give, you get a 20-hour feeling back of 'Gosh, I made a difference today!'" she says. "If I go a couple days without volunteering, I feel badly for them and for myself."

Exercising the dogs also gives Kathy, 49, more physical activity than she says she would have without the volunteer involvement. "It keeps me healthier and gets me out of the house more," she adds.

Doing good leads to health

There's plenty of science to back up the idea that volunteering is a "two-fer": that is, while you're helping your community, the environment or other worthy causes, you're also helping your own physical and mental health. In one study, people with chronic pain who volunteered as peer counselors found that their pain, disability and feelings of depression all lessened from volunteering.

Other research looked at more than 7,500 older U.S. residents and showed that those who were frequent volunteers had a significantly lower death rate than non-volunteers—even after adjusting for health problems. And on college campuses where students gave above-average amounts of time to volunteer projects, students also had 26% less risk of binge drinking.

Of course, most women don't get into volunteering for the health benefits. They volunteer because they care about a cause or want to improve their neighborhood or world. But health rewards may be part of why many women stay dedicated to volunteerism—giving their hard-to-spare time and energy to everything from medical charities to political campaigns.