Physical & cognitive health benefits of volunteering

Physical & cognitive health benefits of volunteering

Volunteering has a wide range of benefits that can affect many aspects of our lives. Although when we think of volunteering we may think of social and mental health benefits, it can also benefit us physically and cognitively.

The type of physical benefit depends on the type of volunteering you do and whether it is self-orientated or other-orientated (1).

  • Self-orientated volunteering can provide more direct physical benefits
  • Other-orientated volunteering impacts mental and social well-being which leads to physical benefits

Self-orientated volunteering is often driven by desires for self-enhancement and self-actualization (1). These volunteering roles will involve more physical, cultural and career activities and can be found in cultural/recreation, environment, law/politics and business/professional services sectors (1).

Other-orientated volunteering is motivated by altruistic and humanitarian ideals that inspire people to help others (1). It enhances interpersonal relationships, supportive networks, sense of making a difference and meaning in life (1). These roles can be found in the health, education, religious groups, human services and youth development sectors (1).

Although on the face of it, it may seem like self-orientated volunteering may maximise physical health for participants, the health benefits of other-orientated volunteering cannot be discounted (1). Increased social wellbeing is one of the main benefits of other-orientated volunteering. Research shows it can lead to a multitude of other health improving effects.  Volunteering has been shown to help with (2):

  • stress(2),
  • family functioning (2),
  • social support and interaction (2),
  • psychological distress (2),
  • satisfaction and quality of life(2),
  • physical activity(2)
  • dementia (2)

Volunteering has been shown to increase memory and executive functioning and can therefore help prevent dementia onset.  Executive functions are important aspects of people’s cognitive ability as it enables them to exert self-control, pay attention, enhance working memory and cognitive flexibility, such as thinking outside the box (3). In particular, greater improvements with cognitive dysfunction have been shown through tests such as task switching, verbal learning and memory as well as cognitive control tests in those who volunteer compared with non-volunteers (2).

The reduced risk of dementia has been quantified at 2.44 times (4). Volunteering needs to be regular, with at least one hour per week for benefits to materialize (4). The exact mechanism of how volunteering reduces the risk of dementia is still being debated by experts (2). However, some theories conclude that volunteering leads to social and cognitive benefits by providing the structure and social interaction that retirees had during their career (4). Another important aspect is that feeling appreciated amplifies the physical and cognitive benefits of volunteering. (5)

 The physical benefits of volunteering are persuasive, particularly for older adults. The benefits are 2.5 times greater for those over 60 years old then for younger people. The increased physical activity in their daily lives led to a wide range of health benefits such as (6):

  • less hypertension (6)
  • fewer hip fractures (6)
  • lower frequency of hospitalization (2)
  • ability to cope with their own illnesses (2)
  • adoption of healthy lifestyle and drinking practices (2)
  • greater ability to carry out activities for daily living (2)

One of the most important benefits is a reduction in the mortality rate. Volunteering is associated with a 24% reduction in mortality risk for older adults, even when adjusted for 11 other variables, such as socio-demographic, economic, lifestyle and physical and mental health factors that may affect mortality (6). Volunteers often report increased social wellbeing and interaction, delivering many benefits (7). The social wellbeing effects of volunteering have even been found to buffer the effects of stressful life events on mortality over a 6 year period (6).  

Volunteering can deliver a multitude of benefits, many that until recently we did not understand or know about. It is now evident that volunteering is good for not just the mind but the body as well, particularly for older people. Volunteering is not just great for the community but also for the volunteer. If you would like to experience the health benefits and maybe live a little longer, you can start your volunteering story today by searching available opportunities that suit you and your interests.

References:

  1. Yeung, J., Zhang, Z., & Kim, T. (2017). Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: cumulative effects and forms. BMC Public Health18(1). doi: 10.1186/s12889-017-4561-8
  2. Casiday, R., Kinsman, E., Fisher, C., & Bambra, C. (2019). Volunteering and Health: What Impact Does It Really Have?. Volunteering England.
  3. Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review Of Psychology64(1), 135-168. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750
  4. Volunteering can reduce dementia risk in seniors, study finds. (2019). Retrieved 28 August 2019, from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-05-volunteering-dementia-seniors.html
  5. McMUNN, A., NAZROO, J., WAHRENDORF, M., BREEZE, E., & ZANINOTTO, P. (2009). Participation in socially-productive activities, reciprocity and wellbeing in later life: baseline results in England. Ageing And Society29(5), 765-782. doi: 10.1017/s0144686x08008350
  6. Anderson, N. D., Damianakis, T., Kröger, E., Wagner, L. M., Dawson, D. R., Binns, M. A.,Bernstein, S., Caspi, E., Cook, S. L., & The BRAVO Team (2014, August 25). The Benefits Associated With Volunteering Among Seniors: A Critical Review and Recommendations for Future Research. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037610                                                            
  7. Jenkinson, C., Dickens, A., Jones, K., Thompson-Coon, J., Taylor, R., & Rogers, M. et al. (2013). Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BMC Public Health13(1). doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-773
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