Newswise — Confining activities to the rocking chair, the beach and the TV couch may be some retirees' idea of good living, but according to new research by experts at Johns Hopkins, published this month on the Journal of Urban Health's Web site, spending some time with young children in the classroom might give them a lot more time to enjoy life.
"Volunteering in a grade school may not seem immediately appealing to older Americans," said Erwin Tan, Ph.D., assistant professor of geriatrics at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the study. "But honestly, our volunteers say it's an enriching experience, and, it turns out, it may be good for you."
In a study of 113 men and women 60 and older, Hopkins researchers investigated the subjects' physical health as it related to their activity levels. Fifty-nine were involved in the Experience Corps Baltimore, a volunteer program designed at Johns Hopkins' Center for Aging, which places elderly volunteers in kindergarten and grammar school classrooms to be mentors and tutors for 15 hours a week. The other 54 individuals were not enrolled in any activity-based volunteer work and served as a comparison group.
The Hopkins researchers concluded that older adults who failed suggested U.S. standards for physical activity when they started volunteering in public grammar schools doubled the amount of calories they burned after volunteering for just one school year. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all Americans be physically active or exercise for half an hour a day, five days a week.
"On the surface these findings seem obvious: "the busier you are, the more physically active you are, and those seniors who keep themselves busy volunteering are going to get more exercise," said Tan. "But the real news here is that this kind of volunteer work can be designed to successfully accomplish two things: The children and teachers benefit by having more wisdom and experience in the classroom and, as this study shows, it gets the seniors more physically active, which we all know is good for everyone. It's a potential win-win for any community."
Tan said it is also believed that the increased physical and mental activity enjoyed by the volunteers enrolled in the Corps also led to the seniors' becoming more active in other environments, namely at home when doing household chores, gardening and home maintenance activities.
The fact that 96 percent of the participants in Experience Corps Baltimore are African American and 84 percent had an annual income of less than $15,000 a year are relevant facts when it's considered that previous studies have shown that healthful intervention programs, like Experience Corps, need to be implemented in high-risk communities with "lower access to health promotion and a higher burden of morbidity," as well as for low-risk adults.
"There are now meaningful important roles in which older adults can make a difference; you do not have to watch television every day of your retirement years," said Linda Fried, Ph.D., head of Geriatric Medicine and the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins and a co-founder of the Experience Corps program. "Staying active contributes to physical and mental vitality. The means to do so are available, and as these recent findings show, the payback to those earnings is real and quantifiable to any senior willing and able to commit the time and energy."
Experience Corps Baltimore continues to conduct research on the mental and physical well-being of a cohort of participant volunteers that continues to grow. Over the next year, it is expected that the ranks of the Baltimore program will expand from 200 to more than 1200. Additional studies examining this larger group are planned.
"It says a lot when we document a near doubling in the physical activity levels of inactive adults who enrolled in this volunteer program," said Tan. "We've shown that volunteering isn't just good; it really is good for you, too."