Volunteering is good for the heart and soul

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 July, 2013, 10:42am

School principals generally insist that teaching should continue until the last lesson of each academic year. Since it has cost me about HK$1.52 per minute for each class that my two children have sat through in primary and secondary school, I have endeavoured to take this directive very seriously. However, I have learned that little learning takes place on the last day, irrespective of how I teach.

One year we tabulated all the activities students had planned to engage in over the summer break, with the goal of making a frequency distribution table and plotting one big colourful histogram. That's when we realised that only one student was going to do volunteer work that summer.

I struggled to come up with an appropriate response that would commend the student without undermining the self-esteem of his classmates.

But recent findings from University of British Colombia (UBC) will stand me in good stead at the end of the next academic year. Writing in the journal JAMA Pediatrics last year, researchers from its faculty of education and department of psychology concluded that volunteering improves the health of adolescents.

"It was encouraging to see how a social intervention to support members of the community also improved the health of adolescents," says Hannah Schreier, who conducted the randomised controlled trial as part of her doctoral studies at UBC.

More than 100 grade-10 students from an inner-city school in Vancouver who were fluent in English and free of chronic illnesses were separated into two groups. For 10 weeks, one group regularly volunteered one hour per week working with primary school children in after-school programmes in their neighbourhoods. The second group was allocated to a waiting list for volunteer activities, but did not participate in any volunteering programme.

Both groups of students were given a physical examination that measured their body mass index (BMI), inflammation and blood cholesterol levels before and after the four-month study. Self-esteem, mental health, mood and empathy were also assessed, both pre- and post-intervention, for both groups of students.

While no statistically significant differences were found at the start, teenagers in the intervention group showed significantly lower levels of inflammation than students who were on the waiting list. Risk of heart disease, as measured by mean differences in cholesterol levels and BMI, was also significantly lowered.

"The volunteers who reported the greatest increases in empathy, altruistic behaviour and mental health were the ones who also saw the greatest improvements in their cardiovascular health," says Schreier.

Heart disease, which refers to a broad spectrum of diseases such as coronary heart disease, hypertensive heart disease, chronic rheumatic heart disease and congenital heart disease, has been the second leading cause of death in Hong Kong since the 1960s. The percentage of Hong Kong students considered overweight has increased from 16.4 per cent 15 years ago to 20.9 in 2012, and one in five of our youngsters is considered obese. This is of real concern because obese children and adolescents are likely to be obese as adults and are therefore at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis.

Although it is well known that people feel more positive about their own lives after volunteering, this study establishes that those who volunteer also have perceptible health benefits while promoting greater civic consciousness.

Perhaps the student in my class that planned to volunteer helping an old vegetable vendor in his district pack her vegetables into cartons and put them in storage each evening over his entire summer holiday could serve as an example to other students who might consider supporting the underprivileged members of our community this summer.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School