People who give of themselves for the sake of others are said to have big hearts. According to new research published in JAMA Pediatrics, those selfless individuals also have strong hearts.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia measured the self-esteem, mental health, mood, empathy, inflammation, cholesterol, and body mass index (BMI) of 106 tenth graders from an inner-city Vancouver high school. Half volunteered one hour a week for two months with neighborhood elementary school children in an after-school program, while the other half did no volunteer work.
At the end of the study, those who volunteered had lower levels of inflammation and cholesterol and lower BMI scores, which are all important factors for maintaining a healthy heart and preventing heart disease.
“The volunteers who reported the greatest increases in empathy, altruistic behavior, and mental health were the ones who also saw the greatest improvements in their cardiovascular health,” said Hannah Schreier, lead study author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
Starting Children Off Right
Childhood obesity is a growing concern in America. While the overall incidence of obesity is decreasing, about 17 percent of all American children are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Previous research has shown that obese children have a greater risk of developing numerous conditions, including depression, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
The Canadian researchers say that volunteering may be a novel way to improve children's health. Besides the physical benefits, the increased empathy generated by volunteering could help create a solid foundation for a children’s emotional future.
The Importance of Empathy
Empathy is a vital human characteristic. It’s been known to increase creativity, classroom and work performance, and cooperative behaviors. It also lessens the chance that a person will engage in violent or dominating behavior, such as bullying.
Previous research into empathy has shown that even the simple act of reading a good book can make you more empathetic because it invites you to walk in the shoes of the protagonist.
As researchers have demonstrated, volunteering can increase a child’s empathy, which in turn can help him or her become a healthier, more well-rounded person.