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PREVENT

The surprising health benefits of volunteering

Minnesota: we're not only the Land of 10,000 Lakes, we're also the land of 1.48 million volunteers. According to the Wilder Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service, 36 percent of Minnesotans donate their time and skills to a variety of community organizations or charities, and 70 percent engage in "informal volunteering" such as helping out neighbors. 

We do it because it makes us feel good; most volunteers report feeling a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, knowing they're making a positive difference in their community and the lives of those in need. I volunteer because it makes me feel socially connected, mentally stimulated and energized.  But did you know that research shows volunteering may also provide us with tangible, physical health benefits?

While it's difficult to prove a direct cause and effect, a growing body of evidence indicates those who volunteer have lower blood pressure, a lower rate of depression and a lower rate of mortality than those who don't volunteer. Volunteering has even been shown to decrease symptoms of chronic pain or heart disease. Studies vary on the minimum amount of time we need to give to obtain health benefits, but most agree it can be as little as one to two hours a week. 

No one really knows which types of volunteer activities are most effective at improving health, but our reason for volunteering does appear to have an impact on possible health benefits. A 2012 study found that participants who volunteered for strictly altruistic, or unselfish, reasons lived longer. Those who volunteered out of a sense of obligation—reluctantly helping at their child's school events, for example—didn’t see an increase in longevity. 

With our busy lives it can be hard to find the time, but consider whether volunteering is right for you. The pay is negligible, but the benefits are priceless. 

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