How to Make Volunteering a Part of Your Wellness Routine

By the Editors of SilverSneakers |

It’s one of the most powerful ways to boost your mental health. Here’s how to turn big intentions into bite-sized good deeds.

senior couple volunteering at animal shelter

When you think of volunteering, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s serving Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter, or joining your community for spring clean-up day at your local park.

Helping others during high-need days is admirable. Still, there are plenty of reasons to give back all year long. And many of them benefit you just as much as the people (or furry friends) you’re serving.

“Volunteering is one of the most important things you can do for your mental health,” says Julian Lagoy, M.D. He’s a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health in San Jose, California. “Helping others in need enables us to think outside of ourselves and also helps us overcome any loneliness or isolation.”

Don’t just take our word for it. A 2019 study in Frontiers in Psychology looked at how volunteering contributed to healthy aging around the world. Experts found that regularly helping others provided a significant boost in life satisfaction and happiness.

Another study, published in a 2021 edition of The Journals of Gerontology, found that those who volunteered after retirement age had a greater sense of meaning and were less likely to have depression.

All those feel-good emotions can give your physical health a boost, too. According to research from Carnegie Mellon University, older adults who volunteered for at least 200 hours per year lowered their risk of hypertension by 40 percent. Lowering blood pressure and helping others? That’s a win-win.

Here are some tips for making the most of volunteering while still keeping yourself safe and healthy.

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Volunteering Tip #1: Focus on Friends and Family

Although volunteering often involves helping those you don’t know — sorting donations at a food bank, for example, or checking people in for a charity 5K — that doesn’t always have to be the case, says Dr. Lagoy.

“You should see every person you encounter in your day as someone you can be helpful to, and treat with kindness,” he notes. “Doing good deeds for others, especially loved ones, is a great way to show that love.”

Volunteering Tip #2: Go Virtual 

The (digital) world is your oyster. You can read to children through Goodnight Zoom, tutor a local high school student through FaceTime or another video app, or lead an online class on whatever topic you love. (One option to check out is the Virtual Senior Center.) Take a look through VolunteerMatch virtual opportunities for other ideas.

Volunteering Tip #3: Do Good Outdoors

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the risk of COVID-19 is lowered when activities are outside, so take advantage of that while volunteering. (Bonus: You’ll get some exercise at the same time.)

Here are some ideas to fuel your fire:

  • Take part in charity events such as 5K walk/runs. (Check out Active.com to find an event near you.)
  • Be a sorting guru at your nearby recycling drop-off location
  • Coach a youth sports team (or help out during a game)
  • Become a trail steward
  • Start your own weekly park clean-up project
  • Plant flowers for a neighbor with limited mobility
  • Offer dog-walking services for an animal shelter

Volunteering Tip #4: Gather Your Friends

There’s plenty you can do when you get some friends together, and it doesn’t need to be a “formal” volunteering program for an established organization.

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For example, you could host a hygiene-kit creation day for a local homeless shelter (don’t forget to ask the shelter first) or organize a meal train for a neighbor in need. You could also help each other with household chores. There’s nothing like a painting party to raise everyone’s spirits (and get dreaded projects done)!

The Bottom Line: Do What Feels Good

Volunteering should feel enriching and rewarding — not like another task for your chore list. It might take some time to find activities that are a great fit, so keep an open mind and shop around a little.

Remember that sometimes, volunteering can just be babysitting your grandkids. It’s all about helping others in a way that makes you feel happier and healthier.

Recommended reading: Take the 7-day Kindness Challenge

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