Study: Volunteering May Improve Cardiovascular Health

The benefits of giving back, compounded

2574312204_4a2937f0b7_z615.jpg
John-Morgan/Flickr

In an inventive attempt at countering the increasing prevalence of heart disease, a new study in JAMA Pediatrics evaluates the impact of volunteering not on the recipients of good will, but on those donating their time. The authors believe this is the first time a study like this, which focuses on physical health effects of helping others, has been done.

Led by Dr. Hannah Schreier, a postdoctoral fellow at Mount Sinai, researchers split up a group of high school sophomores from inner-city Vancouver, so that 52 students fulfilled their school-mandated volunteer hours in the fall, while the other half, as a control, waited for the spring.

They didn't ask very much of the volunteers: just one hour a week spent doing after-school activities, like arts and crafts or "homework club," with elementary school students.

Before and after the semester started, the researchers measured the students' risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including BMI, inflammation, and cholesterol levels. After just ten weeks of volunteering, the volunteers had measurably lower levels of each risk factor, compared to those in the control group.

Can we say that this wasn't just because they spend extra hour a week running after young kids? Not entirely. But researchers also looked at the students' changes in mood, self-esteem, and sense of altruism. They had theorized that the very act of volunteering could serve as a kind of social intervention, their involvement in the community substituting for the support networks that adolescents at high risk for cardiovascular disease are often lacking.

As Schreier sums it up, "The volunteers who reported the greatest increases in empathy, altruistic behaviour and mental health were the ones who also saw the greatest improvements in their cardiovascular health." Caring more about others was directly related to reduced markers of inflammation, and increased altruistic behavior (above and beyond what was required for the study) was related to reduced cholesterol. Greater self-esteem did not appear to have a physical effect.

While a small study, this is probably the least cynical way of demonstrating the benefits of civic engagement possible. Not that there's anything wrong with volunteering for self-serving reasons, be it improved health or a padded resume, but it's particularly nice that the people shown to benefit here are kids who could realistically expect to be on the receiving end of do-gooder activity. That said, everyone can benefit from volunteering, and should probably sign up to do so now. Once you're done, you can celebrate with some wine and be the healthiest person ever.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In