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One Small Change

The Altruistic Workout

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All this month I’ve been experimenting with a new kind of heart workout. Instead of just exercising my heart aerobically as I usually do, I’ve been trying to exercise it altruistically by donating time and money to worthy causes and individuals. Last week, I rung up $608 as a Salvation Army bell ringer, and this week I’ll be handing out fifties to complete strangers. As it turns out, this type of workout may actually be as beneficial to health and longevity as running intervals.

In his book Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post, Ph.D., a professor in the school of medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, presents findings from more than 50 studies supporting this connection. Some of them are downright amazing. For instance:

  • In a five-year study of 2,000 people over age 55, those who volunteered for two or more causes had a 44 percent lower likelihood of dying than those who didn’t volunteer. To put this in perspective, only quitting smoking had a greater life-extending effect among study participants.
  • Those who use first-person words such as I, me and my are more likely to have a heart attack than those who aren’t as verbally self-centered.
  • Researchers at Ohio State University discovered that it took blisters up to two days longer to heal on married couples after they had a 30-minute argument than on those who had supportive discussions. Tests revealed that the former group actually had higher levels of inflammatory cytokines circulating in their blood. Long-term inflammation causes heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some cancers.
  • Chronic pain was reduced by 13 percent when sufferers reached out to others who were in similar pain. Comforting someone evidently releases endorphins that help deaden the consoler’s own discomfort.

Indeed, it appears that just thinking about being altruistic and supportive can have positive physical effects. Research at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who are socially connected catch fewer colds. And when students at Harvard were shown a film about Mother Teresa, the number of infection-fighting molecules in their saliva rose.

I suspect that the reason behind all this is simply that doing good (or thinking about doing so) makes us feel good, too. Post reports on a study from the National Institutes of Health showing that “merely making a decision to donate to a charity increases activity in parts of the brain that release feel-good chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine.” So by helping others be happier we become happier ourselves, which is the most potent of antidotes.

Knock on wood, but maybe this is why I’ve yet to get sick this winter. In fact, I have an idea: If, like me, you exercise primarily to improve your health, perhaps our weekly training programs should include a day when we swap working out for working with. Maybe we volunteer for some worthy organization or just spend some time re-connecting with a family member or neighbor. Based on all this research, even an hour of doing something like this might bestow benefits on our hearts and our health we never suspected.

If you’re looking for a fresh New Year’s resolution to get you in even better shape, perhaps this is it.

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Family, Longevity, Health, Leisure Time, Disease