Health Benefits of Volunteering

By Hannah Johnson, Community Engagement Department, Northern Arizona Healthcare Foundation

The first time I learned the word “volunteer” was in second grade. We were reading about First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the selfless work she undertook to enhance the situation of others. At the young age of seven, Mrs. Roosevelt’s inspiring efforts had an impact on me---ultimately instilling a desire to serve. 

Since then, I have been fortunate enough to build a career around service and engage in meaningful volunteer opportunities that span a spectrum of causes. To be quite honest, the work hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been fulfilling. 

Have you ever stopped and wondered why it feels so good to give your time, talents or treasures to others?   

Would you believe me if I told you that part of the reason stems from our biological make-up?

According to research studies, acts of volunteerism prompt the production of feel-good hormones within your body that lead to positive short and long-term effects. Some public health experts have also concluded that volunteering leads to longer, healthier lives and argue it should be recommended by doctors alongside a healthy diet and regular exercise. 

These findings bring more texture to quotes such as this one by Leonard Nimoy, “The miracle is this - the more you give, the more you have.” The “have” part speaks both to the intrinsic rewards as well as extrinsic. 

Isn’t it wonderful to know that such a simple act of service can be a benefit to our communities as well as our own, individual well-being? 

Not convinced? Here are five health benefits of volunteering, backed by science:

1. Decrease your chances of heart disease - According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease results in nearly one in four deaths a year. In a study on the health benefits of volunteering conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, findings revealed a correlation between volunteer rates and incidences of heart disease. U.S. states that skewed higher in overall volunteerism ranked higher in overall health and lower in heart disease. 

2. Lose weight - Yes, can you believe this? The extra activity involved with many volunteer opportunities support healthy calorie burning. A Johns Hopkins University study found that older adults who volunteered at an elementary school burned twice the amount of calories than when they didn’t. Another study following Canadian tenth-graders tracked a decrease in weight and improved cholesterol profiles by students who volunteered. 

3. Manage stress - It’s a well-known fact that stress takes a toll on the body over time. Volunteerism has been found to support individuals in reducing and even eliminating high levels of stress. Studies have shown that when people engage in a good act or even think about giving, chemicals such as dopamine or serotonin release in the brain’s mesolimbic system. When this happens, people experience phenomena known as the helper’s high.

4. Boost your immune system - An experiment conducted with 132 students at Harvard University observed an increase of immunoglobulin A in students who watched footage of Mother Theresa engaging in acts of kindness versus students who watched footage of potatoes being peeled. Immunoglobulin A is an important component of the immune system and the first line of defense against viruses, bacteria or other pathogens.

5. Feel a connection - In the book, Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam illustrates the correlation between social connectedness and improved clinical outcomes. Putnam's colleague. Thomas H. Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard University backed this claim through his own research, “Social capital research shows it (civic engagement and volunteering) miraculously improves both your health and the community’s through the work performed and the social ties built.” 



Sandra Kowalski