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A gift that goes on giving

Author: Peter Jaret

These days, schools and school kids need all the help they can get. Most older Americans need to be more physically active. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicinedemonstrate thatan innovative program called Experience Corps can meet both needs–with generous benefits to spare.

A previous study led by Hopkins geriatric researcher Erwin Tan, PhD, published in 2006, showed that older black women who volunteer in classrooms with young children get plenty of exercise (no surprise to anyone who spends time with young children). For previously sedentary women, 15 hours of volunteer work at a grade school nearly doubled their overall activity. Very few programs have ever been able to boast that kind of improvement. The latest follow-up, three years later, shows that volunteers remain more active.

The research team collected health information about 71 black women over the age of 65 who participate in the Experience Corps Baltimore, a program sponsored by Johns Hopkins that places elderly volunteers in kindergarten through third grade classrooms, where they serve as mentors and tutors. The scientists then compared the volunteers to 150 black women in the same area who are not part of the program.

The original findings showed that school volunteers burned twice as many calories a day as women in the control group. The follow-up data confirms that, even three years later, the volunteers are still getting about double the activity, measured in calorie expenditure. Moreover, findings show that the volunteers improved their walking speed and grip strength, two important measures of function in older age. They also improved theirmemory and attention.

“Anything that increases a level of activity for a long period of time is a huge plus,” said Dr. Tan. “But the real news here is that this particular kind of volunteer work benefits children and the educational system as well as the volunteers, demonstrating the potential benefits for what many are calling an intergenerational social contract.”

Of course the benefits go way beyond physical activity. Just listen to one of the volunteers, Delores Bell, describe her experience on the Experience Corps Baltimore website: “During my short time with Experience Corps I’ve felt like my life has meaning. I have a reason for getting up in the morning, knowing that I am going to help a child. When they say, “Miss Bell I need some help,” or “Miss Bell, will you help me,” it gives me a feeling that I am needed. You cannot imagine the joy that it brings me. I now have a purpose to get up in the morning, knowing that there are children waiting for me.”

You don’t need a scientific experiment to prove those benefits are incalculable.

2009 PDQhealth

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