Helping others makes your heart feel happy, but it can make your heart healthy, too.

That's the consensus of researchers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Their findings were included in JAMA Pediatrics in 2013.

The researchers followed a group of 52 high school sophomores in Vancouver who donated an hour of their time each week working after school with elementary school students. They helped the students with homework, played games together, and assisted with arts-and-craft projects.

The scientists measured key indicators in the high school participants both before starting the volunteer process and after, and then compared the results with a control group of students who did not volunteer. What they found was that after volunteering, the study group had lower cholesterol and inflammation levels than students in the control group who did not volunteer. All of these benefits add up to reduced cardiovascular risk.

Why Volunteering Is Good for the Heart

Exactly what it is about volunteering that improves these factors related to heart health is still unclear, but researcher Hannah Schreier, PhD, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, believes that the act of helping others may be a catalyst to encourage the volunteers to adopt other helping behaviors, too, which are good for their health overall.

"Preliminary analyses from our study suggest that the volunteers who began to engage in more pro-social behaviors in general—outside of what we asked them to do as part of the volunteering intervention—benefitted the most," Schreier says. "Volunteers who experienced the greatest decrease in negative effect benefitted more from the intervention. This would be in line with previous research that has shown that negative affect is associated with inflammatory markers.

How You Can Get the Benefits

While more research needs to be done to better understand the health benefits of volunteering, it's safe to say that giving your time to a good cause may also help to lower your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. And while this study focused only on adolescents, other studies have found that similar benefits may exist for adults, too.

To find the right volunteer opportunities for you,

  • Tie it to something you're interested in. Any activity that speaks to you will be an enjoyable experience.
  • Take a look in your community. Virtually all neighborhoods have various community programs that one can get involved in; one can ask around about different programs.
  • Go online to find opportunities. There are dedicated websites, such as Volunteer Match, that lists opportunities. Or look up a favorite charity to find out how you can help.

Hannah Schreier, MC, PhD, reviewed this article.




Schreier, Hannah M.C., PhD. Postdoctoral fellow, Icahn School of Medicine, NY, NY. Email interview 15 March 2013.

Schreier, Hannah M. C. et al.  "Effect of Volunteering on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease in Adolescents: A Randomized Controlled Trial." JAMA Pediatrics (2013): 1-6. Web. 21 March 2013.