In this report

Surprising health benefits of giving

Last reviewed: December 2011
Actor Wilmer Valderrama serving food at a free community lunch
Actor Wilmer Valderrama helps at a free community lunch in Maywood, Calif.
Photograph by Getty Images

If you volunteer, you probably do it for the same reasons I do—to pitch in and give back to my community. An added bonus for me is that I get to spend time with my teenage son, who puts aside his usual social distractions to volunteer with me some Saturdays at our local food bank.

Those benefits would be plenty. But as it turns out, people who serve as volunteers may realize another, unanticipated perk: better health.

Proven rewards

Researchers who have tracked older adults who do various kinds of volunteer work have shown that they live longer and rate themselves at higher levels of health than their counterparts who don't volunteer. You don't have to be in excellent physical shape to reap those benefits. For example, a recent study looked at older adults in Baltimore who volunteered in a public elementary school at least 15 hours per week. It revealed that those who rated themselves in just "fair health" at the start of the study were the most likely to improve their stair-climbing speed over the next eight months, compared with a control group that didn't volunteer. Many of them also showed significant gains in walking speed. The volunteers at all health levels experienced improved cognitive function, and they watched less television than the control group, also a predictor of better health.

Other studies have linked volunteerism to greater life satisfaction, reduced stress, and less depression. For example, a Cornell University study of almost 7,000 adults found that retirees who volunteered on environmental projects were only half as likely as non-volunteers to report symptoms of depression 20 years later.

Some experts believe that the altruistic nature of volunteering may contribute to its psychological benefits. Indeed, the imparted sense of purpose seems to support volunteer retention better than other social programs geared toward aging adults, such as senior exercise groups.

Finding a good fit

If you're looking for an opportunity to give back this season, a food-related charity might be a good place to start. While this is the time of year when many of us are consumed by thoughts of food—baking cookies, going to holiday parties, sharing recipes, having guests for dinner—some 49 million Americans don't have enough to eat, during the holidays or anytime.

Volunteering for a food bank, meals-on-wheels program, soup kitchen, or other hunger-relief effort can be a good way to balance the usual holiday excess. Whatever type of opportunity you pursue, do some research to see which organization is the best fit for you. Your experience is more likely to be satisfying if your talents, skills, and interests are well matched to the group's needs. These websites can help connect you to volunteer opportunities:

AARP Foundation Drive to End Hunger

Feeding America

Volunteer Match

United We Serve

Orly Avitzur, M.D.
Orly Avitzur, M.D.
A board-certified neurologist, is medical adviser to Consumers Union