For some, the Holiday Season can be a time of social isolation and loneliness.
This can be especially true for older adults who live alone, according to Palmer physical therapists Anne Thomas. Research shows social isolation can have adverse effects such as depression, reduced cognitive function, decreased activity, and many physical conditions.
“We tend to see more instances of issues like high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity in people who perhaps aren’t as social as they used to be,” said Thomas, owner of Body In Balance Physical Therapy in Palmer. “And, while it’s completely fine to be comfortable by yourself, it’s often beneficial both mentally and physically to make time for social interactions.”
One great way to do this, according to Thomas – especially this time of year – is to take advantage of community volunteer opportunities.
Volunteering For Your Health
“Studies have shown that volunteering is a great way for seniors to counter many of the effects of isolation and aging,” Thomas said. “Just getting out in a useful way to support a cause you believe in can benefit the mind and the body – from combatting loneliness to increasing levels of health and activity.”
And, she added, volunteering can take on many forms, regardless of age, health or physical limitations.
Some proven health benefits of volunteering include:
Improving Self-Esteem, Lowering Depression
Giving time to others can create a personal sense of accomplishment. When assisting others, the body releases dopamine in the brain, which has a positive effect on how people feel. It is documented that volunteers also experience lower levels of depression.
Volunteers are surrounded by a community that’s attuned to helping – people willing to lend a hand when times get tough. And, they realize that safety nets go both ways: helping when asked and asking for help.
According to a study by a Carnegie Mellon University doctoral student, volunteering reduces stress. In her study, 200 hours of volunteering per year correlated to lower blood pressure, and lower blood pressure correlated to better health outcomes.
Keeping the Mind Active
The same study speculated that mentally stimulating activities, like tutoring or helping with reading, contribute to maintaining memory and thinking skills that, in turn, reduces cognitive impairments.
According to Thomas, physical therapy services often work to complement these effects by working with seniors and others to keep their bodies volunteer ready.
“Once a person starts to realize all the physical, mental and social benefits of giving back to people and their communities, this can help motivate them to live healthier, more active lives,” Thomas said. “Physical therapists, like those on my Body In Balance Physical Therapy team, are there to offer support that allows these efforts to extend into the long term.”