Volunteering boosts heart health, experts say

TORONTO – Don Priston has been retired for six years, but his weeks are still packed with activities.

On Wednesdays, Priston follows a route delivering meals on wheels. On other afternoons he spends time helping out at a children’s hospital, then teaches grade 4 students how to play backgammon and other games.

It’s a fulfilling life for the 72-year-old Toronto volunteer.

“I get a wonderful feeling helping people,” he said.

Helping others and volunteering boosts your heart health

Volunteering your time may help others but researchers suggest its benefits extend to your heart and overall health as well.

About 100 hours of volunteer work a year – or a mere two hours a week – is sufficient to reap the health benefits, according to research.

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Lynn Angus volunteers at The Toronto Humane Society. She says it definitely improves her well-being.

“Your blood pressure goes way down, and it kind of just calms you,” she said. “You know, takes that edge off if you’ve had a rough day. So it’s rewarding. I wish more people would get involved in volunteering.”

Guelph University’s Dr. Benjamin Gottlieb is studying the effects of volunteering in people 55 years and older.

“Older adults who are actively involved in volunteering have better mental health, they have less depression than their counterparts who are not volunteering, they feel more satisfied with their life overall,” Gottlieb told Global News.

A lot of the psychological benefit has to do with opportunities to make new friends and try new activities.

Meanwhile, volunteering to deliver meals or working in a soup kitchen, to name a few options, offers exercise.

Gottlieb’s research chronicles the health of older people who take the time to volunteer each week. Over the course of two years, their function, blood glucose levels, body mass, heart rate and other physical outcomes were studied.

Early results have already suggested that people who volunteer live longer. Across the board, those who volunteer are healthier than the norms for their age group.

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“We’re very enthusiastic and very optimistic that we will be able to establish or have established really that volunteering is good medicine. It’s good health,” he said.

Heart attack survivors even benefit from volunteering

What’s more, even those who have suffered from a heart attack or stroke obtain the benefits of volunteering following the event.

“The volunteering both gives them a sense of purpose of meaning and contributes to the maintenance of their health following this event that’s occurred to them,” Gottlieb said.

According to a Duke University study, people who volunteered after their heart attack reported a great sense of purpose, less depression and despair, reducing their mortality rate.

This was the case for Patricia Quinn, a Lower Sackville, N.S. resident.

On the job as a high school teacher, Quinn was getting ready for class when she felt a crushing pain in her chest.

“I was sitting at my desk and trying to get the lessons prepared and it felt like somebody was hugging me really too hard. I couldn’t get air into my lungs,” Quinn told Global News.

“I had no idea what was going on. I just felt there was this extreme pressure, I had no other symptoms other than that.”

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An ambulance picked her up from the school and after a few days, it was an angiogram that revealed she had suffered a heart attack.

Two arteries had 75 and 80 per cent blockages. Stents were put in place to clear the blockage and she says a small device helped clean the plaque off arteries.

After recuperating from the heart attack, Quinn started devoting time to volunteering at a long-term care home, at a local church, fundraising for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and even on various political campaigns.

Those responsibilities have kept her going on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s so easy to become self-absorbed in your illness, to let it control your life,” she said.

“When you go out and you volunteer, you’re doing it for others and you forget about yourself.”

She said it’s also a great feeling to have others waiting on your assistance.

Gottlieb says that the meals on wheels program is an example of ideal volunteering – it forces volunteers to take on some physical activity with bending, lifting, carrying, going up stairs. But it also exercises the brain as volunteers follow directions while driving and make conversation as they drop meals off.

As a heart attack survivor, Quinn’s advice is to get out there and share your talents. She says volunteering helped her to heal.

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“I know that by volunteering my whole perspective on life improved, she said, whether it be physically, mentally, whatever, the healing process was spurred on by my volunteering. There’s no question about that.”