5 health benefits of volunteering

Giving up your time to help others has a range of unexpected benefits

More than 23 million people in the UK volunteer at least once a year. They throwing their time and energy into helping others. These dedicated volunteers:

  • Help the isolated and sick

  • Drive community groups

  • Transform wild spaces

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that their own health is benefiting, too.

“People who volunteer are happier and healthier than their counterparts who don’t.” This is according to Catherine Johnstone CBE. Johnstone is chief executive of the Royal Voluntary Service. Their research shows volunteering improves wellbeing and reduces depression. “We recently surveyed 2,000 of our volunteers. 73 per cent said volunteering had made them feel healthier physically and emotionally.”

1. Reduces stress

Work-related stress affects around five million adults in the UK. A survey of 600 Community Service Volunteers found that almost two-thirds said volunteering:

  • Reduced stress levels

  • Boosted the immune system

  • Helped to combat disease

2. Beats depression

The CSV survey found that almost half of those who had volunteered for over two years said it made them feel less depressed. Volunteers reported a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. They also took less time off work. Volunteering could help the 12 million in the UK with mental health problems. Volunteers over 40 are most likely to benefit, found one UK study. And US studies found the benefits persist into old age, especially among those who had no partner or job. Retirement can increase the risk of depression, but volunteering reversed that.

3. Lowers blood pressure

A study found that over-50s who volunteer regularly are less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. High blood pressure contributes to heart disease, stroke and premature death. The study found that 200 hours of volunteering per year contributed to lower blood pressure. 200 hours is equal to 8.3 days, so volunteering for a little over a week a year can have a big health impact. Other studies have shown lowered blood pressure after even fewer hours of volunteering.

4. Boosts brain function

Older adults who tutor children or volunteer in other ways can delay or even reverse declining brain function. This was found by a Johns Hopkins University study.

Magnetic resonance imaging brain scans showed improvements in volunteers’ mental function. Volunteering can help to maintain brain function in later life. Women over 65 who volunteered for a youth mentoring programme found improved results over time.

5. Increases fitness and stamina

Successive studies have shown that volunteering increases fitness and may result in weight loss, too. One Johns Hopkins University study looked into this. It found that older adults who volunteered in schools burned twice as many calories while volunteering. The volunteers studied also gained muscle strength. Volunteers’ weight and cholesterol levels also reduced, improving heart health. Another study found volunteers over the age of 50 spent 38 percent less time in hospital.