Study: Volunteering, working come with hidden health benefits

At 73, Julie Van Hout could slow down.  But, if anything, she's stepping up her game.

"It's either that or become a couch potato,” the retired homemaker says.

Van Hout volunteers regularly at the Atlanta-based non-profit Medshare.

"My kids are all grown, and my husband is retired now.  And that can get a little lonely,” she says.

But, here at Medshare, Van Hout feels like she's part of a team, making a difference, sorting surplus medical supplies from U.S. hospitals that will be shipped to in-need clinics all over the world.

Robin Chalmers, a 62-year old business owner, is a regular here, too. 

She and Julie like the feeling of connection they share with other volunteers

"It's just a varied group of people and I think that helps keep you younger,” says Chalmers.  “You don't end up talking about your health problems.”

And Chalmers and Van Hout may be onto something important, says Georgia State University Professor of Sociology Dr. Ben Kail, Ph.D.

"For people who are healthy enough to do so, working and volunteering is good for you,” Kail says.

He studies aging, and, in particular, the idea of "successful aging." 

In a recently published study, Kail and his co-author at Florida State University found people who continue to work or volunteer regularly in their 50s and early 60s do better physically than those don't work or volunteer.

"Part of it is that it gives you physical activity,” explains Dr. Kail.  “It also provides, and this is key, access to social integration. So, when we're thinking about people who are retiring, they're not just losing income. They're losing something that keeps them moving, and they're losing, usually, some of their biggest non-family networks.""

Kail and his partner found workers and volunteers who put in at least 100 hours a year had fewer physical limitations - and on average, fewer chronic conditions than their non-active peers.  So, they were more likely to be able to walk a block, or climb a flight of stairs, or stoop and stand up.

"I think it makes perfect sense,” says Robin Chalmers.  “Because, for one thing, you're getting out. You're moving around. I always wear my Fitbit, and a lot of times, in a 3 hour session, I'll put in 4,000 steps."

Julie Van Hout says giving back helped her come back from surgeries that could've sidelined her.

“I've had a hip and a knee replaced, and, yeah, I'm right back up and raring to go again,” she says.

Her advice?  Keep on keeping on.  And, if you can help others, all the more reason to get moving.

"Get out of the house, get out of your comfort zone, and do it,” Van Hout says.  “It makes you feel better than doing nothing. I have a lot of friends who do nothing and they get old real fast."