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The Surprising Ways Helping Others Can Improve Your Health

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The line is long, and for an hour I don’t stop moving. First a spoonful of beans on the plate, then a squirt of ketchup and mustard on each hamburger. Everyone is patient and polite. Some look me in the eye, and smile, or make a quick joke. Some look at the floor and seem to have trouble forming words. One man in a polo shirt asks my name, tells me his, and when he returns for seconds he says, “Thank you, Hilary.”

I look down the line to my right, and see my ten-year-old daughter handing out cookies. My eight-year-old son is on banana duty. Their faces are serious, intent.

On the second Tuesday of every month, my kids and I drive to a local church and serve food to the homeless. We don’t attend the church, but no one there seems to mind. We are there to feed those who are less fortunate, but I’m surprised how much this monthly routine feeds my soul.

The benefits of helping others

Science Says Helping Others Makes You Healthier

It turns out the good feeling I get from volunteering is not unusual. A 2013 study from the University of Exeter reviewed forty studies from the last twenty years on volunteering and health, and found volunteers had a 22 percent lower mortality rate than non-volunteers. The studies showed volunteering also leads to higher levels of self-esteem and happiness.

It won’t work, however, to force yourself (or others) into a volunteering role you don’t enjoy. And don’t pick one that sucks up too much of your time. According to the evidence in these studies, the positive effects of volunteering don’t occur if volunteers feel they are not recognized for their efforts or if the work is too time-consuming.

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As much as the Whole Life Challenge is about improving your physical health, it’s also about working on your mental and emotional health. This element is vital, but it can be overlooked by challengers. A regular volunteer commitment will help you look outside yourself and connect with the world around you. As much good as you are doing for others, it’s okay to admit that volunteering is also something you do for yourself, as reviving and invigorating as a massage or a workout.

How can you get involved? Here are some tips to help you start.

4 Tips for Successful Volunteering

1. Start Small

I’m a working mom with two school-age kids, so life is hectic. I knew whatever volunteer job we took on — and I really wanted something that involved the kids — it would have to be manageable. The church offers the dinners every week, but we could never stick to that schedule. I decided one and half hours once a month would be enough to start.

When thinking about taking on a new volunteering role, start very small. Remember that just like exercise and good nutrition, consistency is more important than a heroic, infrequent effort.

2. Avoid Meetings and Bureaucracy

Up until this year, the volunteer work I’d done consisted mostly of attending meetings. I’ve tried out different organizations, but quit because I always felt so removed from the actual solution. Handing out food to people who are hungry is about as immediate as it gets. I can see the impact right in front of my eyes. Of course we are offering more than food. We’re also providing a kind word and a smile.

The benefits of helping others

Other hands-on volunteering opportunities to try include tutoring or mentoring, some type of clean up or beautification, construction, gardening, or simply offering your time and presence to someone in need. The work can capitalize on your particular expertise, or you can use it as a chance to try something completely new.

3. Think Locally

We live at the beach in Southern California. There’s always been a homeless population in our community, but in the last year many in the neighborhood say the problem is getting worse. As a result, the anger toward the homeless reached a fever pitch this past spring. So many people were shouting about how dangerous and disgusting the homeless are. I wanted to acknowledge their humanity, to balance some of the hate thrown in their direction.

I know a free meal is not going to solve the problem, but it helps reinforce the idea that — for better or worse — we share this community. My kids see the homeless everywhere, and I wanted them to have a positive interaction with the people we pass by while biking down the boardwalk or walking to get dinner.

A volunteer opportunity in your neighborhood will increase your ties to the community and let you see the impact you’re having.

The benefits of helping others

4. Include Friends or Family

Volunteering together is a great way to connect with friends or family. Including someone else will also make you accountable to your commitment.

Other than a few beach cleanups, my kids have not volunteered much. I was unprepared for how seriously they would take their jobs, and how hard they would work setting up food, serving, and cleaning up afterward. Part of what they enjoy is the feeling of playing restaurant, but they also understand they are giving food to people who have none, and perhaps more importantly, acknowledging people who are forgotten and ignored.

I was nervous the first time we showed up, unsure what to do and if our help was even needed. Having my kids with me smoothed over the initial awkwardness, and seeing how well they reacted to the experience motivated me to keep going every month.

What’s Good for Others Is Good for You

The world feels scary and unbalanced lately, with bad news arriving almost every day. When I get overwhelmed by arguments sprouting up in my Facebook feed, or problems with no solution in sight, I’m comforted by this small, good thing my kids and I accomplish each month.

As we left the church last month, I thought about how most of my wellness efforts are focused on myself — making sure I eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep. These are all important, but the change of view, from myself to those around me, is refreshing. It gives me perspective and gratitude, reminding me what a privilege it is to take care of my body and mind.

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Hilary Achauer
Hilary Achauer is a freelance health and fitness writer. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Greatist, Racked, Men's Health, Today's Parent, San Diego Magazine, and the CrossFit Journal.

A former children's books editor, Hilary once competed as an amateur boxer, but now spends her free time in a CrossFit gym or surfing. Find out more about her at HilaryAchauer.com.

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