A new article in The Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences reveals that African American women aged 60 and older who volunteer in elementary schools are not only more physically active than their non-volunteering counterparts, but seem to sustain this physical activity over time. Specifically, those who volunteered burned twice as many calories as those who did not.
This study, led by Erwin Tan, PhD, of the Johns Hopkins University, suggests that the country’s investment in national and community service programs can simultaneously be an investment in public health.
“For our volunteers,” Tan said, “volunteering with children may be as good for their health as a gym membership. For our children, the wisdom that our older adults have is priceless.” He added that, due to their enjoyment of working with children, the volunteers may be more willing to keep up with this approach in the long term, compared with traditional exercise programs.
Tan also explained that the focus on African American women was due to their prevalence in the two community groups from which the study participants were recruited, but he said the results are likely the same for all older people.
The data was gathered from participants in the Experience Corps (EC) program, a community-based initiative that places older adults as volunteers in public elementary schools. This information was then compared to surveys of non-volunteers enrolled in the Baltimore Women’s Health and Aging Studies.
Tan’s research builds on the results of a 2006 study of the EC program, which showed that 15 hours of volunteer work per week at an elementary school nearly doubled a sedentary older adult’s activity level. The new study demonstrates that the increased activity can remain high for at least three years.
Another Johns Hopkins-based investigation of the EC program was published in the December 2008 issue of The Gerontologist. A research team led by Michelle Carlson, PhD, reported similar findings about EC’s potential cognitive benefits for participants.
She and her colleagues found that EC volunteers showed greater improvements in memory and executive function than those who did not participate in the program. In fact, the older adults with the lowest baseline performance in these areas — those most at risk for health disparities — demonstrated the most significant gains.
Both studies highlighted above show that everyday activity interventions (e.g., EC) can appeal to older adults’ desires to remain socially engaged and productive in their post-retirement years. Simultaneously, these activities provide measurable physical and cognitive health benefits.