What have you done for the world lately? Maybe you spent a minute bringing an elderly neighbor her mail, an hour serving lunch at a soup kitchen or a day reading to kids at the children's hospital. Whatever the altruistic activity, you know that doing good feels good—and it's also good for you.
In a study published in Psychology and Aging, adults over age 50 who regularly volunteered were more likely to have lower blood pressure, which is linked to overall better health and reduced risk of heart disease. And a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service listed improved mental health, reduced depression and greater life satisfaction among the benefits of selfless behavior.
As much as you might love to get your philanthropy on, busy schedules aren't always conducive to lending big chunks of time. So what's an altruistic-minded girl (or guy) to do?
Think about how much time you spend exercising each week. Even if you're not hitting the gym daily, chances are you're spending at least a few hours on your fitness. Whether that consists of walking, jogging or squeezing in a yoga class, consider redirecting that time to a more altruistic, but still active, outlet. By choosing one of these more vigorous volunteering options, you can burn calories and build strength, while also using all that expended energy for the greater good.
1. Sign up for a charity run, walk or ride.
In almost every city, you can find a local race or event that raises money and awareness for a good cause, from fighting cancer to helping needy families. Pick a charitable event that's near and dear to your heart, and recruit a few friends or family members to join. As you train for the event, the benefits of all your hard work will extend far beyond your fit physique.
Some of America's most popular charity races include the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the Wounded Warrior Project and the American Heart Association's Heart Walk. Visit Active.com to find an event near you.
2. Put the kibosh on trash.
Litter is a sad fact of life. When walking down the street, odds are you'll see a piece of trash every 12 steps. According to Keep America Beautiful, there are more than 50 billion pieces of litter scattered around our nation, mainly composed of fast food packaging, paper products and cigarette butts.
KAB organizes hundreds of volunteer programs across the country, including litter cleanups at parks, in urban areas, on beaches and along roadways. It's a great way to get moving while beautifying your community's landscapes.
3. Be a "bus buddy."
If you enjoy working with kids, consider reaching out to local elementary schools to volunteer as an escort to and from the buses. While helping to ensure children's safety and brighten their day, you'll also boost your daily step count and burn some extra calories.
4. Clean for the greater good.
Most non-profits have tight budgets, which means there's not a lot of extra money for luxuries like cleaning services. Contact your local homeless shelter or humane society and offer to pitch in. Whether you're washing windows, sweeping floors or organizing clutter, you can turn the facility's to-do list items into major calorie burners.
If you'd prefer to get your hands dirty outside, volunteer to help a church, shelter or another non-profit with landscaping or gardening, which can help to build strength, flexibility and endurance while also burning calories.
5. If you build it, the fitness will come.
Since 1976, Habitat for Humanity has helped 6.8 million people find affordable homes, largely through the efforts of volunteers who build and renovate properties. If you're the handy type, put your DIY skills to good use by volunteering for construction projects in your local community or abroad. The hands-on physical work will improve your fitness while also helping a family in need.
6. Help physically challenged athletes.
We may not always feel like lacing up our running shoes and pounding the pavement, but at least most of us have that option. For many athletes, an injury, illness or health condition has compromised their ability to pursue traditional sports.
To help these athletes resume active lifestyles and regain their confidence, many non-profit organizations—including Special Olympics, Challenged Athletes Foundation, American Association of Adapted Sports Programs and Disabled Athlete Sports Association—design adaptive programs for kids and adults facing physical challenges. You can get involved by volunteering at athletic events, coaching sports teams, giving swimming lessons or meeting other specific needs.
7. Give blood.
Someone in the U.S. needs blood every two seconds, making donors a life-saving commodity. Although it shouldn't be treated as a weight loss tool, giving blood could have some surprisingly healthy side effects, including regulated iron levels, improved circulation, reduced cancer risk and an extra calorie burn. Plus, the Red Cross provides a mini physical to all donors to check their pulse, blood pressure, body temperature and hemoglobin levels. Visit the American Red Cross to find out how to donate in your area.
For those interested in staying fit and being more behind the scenes, the Red Cross Blood Services Warehouse enlists volunteers to organize and pack boxes for shipment to blood drives and to stock shelves, says Greta Gustafson, Media Relations Associate for the Red Cross.
8. Volunteer as a sports coach.
Many low-budget school districts can't afford to keep coaches on staff. In fact, between 2009 and 2011, around $3.5 billion was cut from public school athletic funds—and the kids pay the price. Lack of school sports programs can lead to increased childhood obesity, lower self-esteem, plunging academic performance and a higher risk of depression.
You can help by signing up as a volunteer sports coach. Not only will your efforts boost the players' confidence, strength and overall wellness, you can also squeeze in your own workouts by participating in drills and conditioning along with the team.
9. Help physically challenged neighbors.
If you have an elderly or disabled neighbor, ask if you can help by walking his or her dog, carrying in and putting away groceries, mowing or raking the lawn or tending to household maintenance tasks. Your contributions will bring your neighbor priceless peace of mind, while doubling as functional fitness.
10. Walk with a furry friend.
If your workout program has gone to the dogs lately, consider bringing along a canine companion on your walks or jogs. Approximately 3.9 million dogs enter animal shelters each year, which means your local animal shelter is likely in dire need of dog walkers. Active animal lovers can contact The Humane Society, the Animal Humane Society or other area shelters to volunteer their services. Who knows? As you log all those miles together, you just might find a permanent workout buddy.
Have you tried any of these active volunteering activities? What are some other ways to do good and get fit at the same time?
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