Last week, Michelle Obama traveled across the country promoting her “Let’s Move” Campaign, which encourages schools, families, and communities to combat childhood obesity through healthy food and exercise. The First Lady is asking schools to do their part by providing nutritious meals and strong P.E. programs to their students—important goals, given that obesity can cause serious physical and mental health issues and reduce academic achievement among kids.

© MarkHatfield

But new scientific findings suggest that Mrs. Obama may need to add another component to her program: volunteering.

In a study published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, 106 10th-grade students were asked to volunteer in after-school programs where they worked with elementary-aged children for 60 to 90 minutes per week for 10 weeks; another group of 10th graders, who were waitlisted for volunteering, served as a control group.

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Compared to the non-volunteers, the students who volunteered showed a steep drop in risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including cholesterol levels and body mass index, at the end of 10 weeks. These benefits were even more pronounced for students whose empathy and altruistic behaviors increased the most and whose negative moods lessened over those 10 weeks.

So, while the study didn’t focus on decreasing obesity specifically, it did show that volunteering may prevent one of its potential consequences: heart disease. And it has the added value of increasing kind, helpful (or “pro-social”) behavior—a nice alternative to the low self-esteem and academic troubles that can result from childhood obesity.

The findings add an exciting new physical dimension to what scientists know about the many social and emotional benefits volunteering brings students, including: higher levels of positive emotions; a stronger ability to regulate their emotions; lower levels of risk behavior, such as early pregnancy and drug use; increased civic engagement and moral reasoning; and a greater likelihood of volunteering in adulthood.

So for schools that already provide volunteer opportunities for their students—keep up the great work! Research tells us that you’re benefiting your students not only mentally and emotionally but physically as well.

But for those schools that haven’t yet integrated volunteering into the curriculum, or for those that would like to make student volunteering more effective, here are some research-based tips.

1) Make service social. As much as possible, provide opportunities for students to engage directly with people who are receiving the service. One study discovered that student volunteers who worked directly with people versus those who didn’t afterwards felt a stronger connection to other people in general, along with the belief that they could make a difference in the world. Another study showed that direct contact made students more likely to take a stand on issues they cared about, for instance by demonstrating or boycotting about those issues. In general, research has found that social connection provides a vast array of physical and mental health benefits, whereas loneliness weakens our cardiovascular and immune systems.

While the authors of the JAMA study didn’t test different kinds of service, I think it’s quite possible that volunteering helped the students’ hearts because it fostered greater connections between them and younger students; indeed, if they felt stronger empathic connection to others, these cardiovascular benefits increased even more. I know when I was a teacher, I saw a significant change in my older students when they were given the responsibility of working with kindergartners. It was as if they had taken an empathy pill—one that made them more patient, understanding, and kind.

2) Service-learning vs. community service—take your pick! Some schools mandate community service through formal service-learning programs, while others make service voluntary through more informal community service opportunities.

According to researchers, it doesn’t matter which way you go—both have the same positive impact on students, particularly when compared with students who never volunteer. So, what’s important is that students are volunteering—period.

However, I would add from personal experience that requiring service might help students who would never consider volunteering try it out—and they just might fall in love with it. Case in point: One of my best friends was required to do community service in high school and found that working with autistic children changed his life. Rather than becoming a lawyer, he decided to teach high school and start his own fabulous service-learning program.

3) Consider the people and organizations receiving service. While most of the studies on service-learning and volunteering focus on the students who perform the service, some researchers decided to turn the lens around and ask those receiving service about their experience. And what they found isn’t all roses.

Imagine this scenario: An enthusiastic 16-year old arrives at your workplace, ready to save the world. However, this teen has very few skills and even less knowledge about the work your organization does. Oh—and can only help three hours a week for six weeks total. Needless to say, the organizations interviewed for the study responded with a hearty, “AAACKK!!”

So when you’re sending your students off to volunteer, be sure to communicate with the organizations ahead of time to find out what their needs are and consider if your students have the skills and time to fill those needs.

I take heart that so many schools already have volunteer programs in place—together, you’re creating a world of do-gooders. And as we’re learning, so many activities that are good for the world are also good for students’ own minds, bodies, and hearts.

I’d love to hear from those of you who work with student volunteer programs about what does and doesn’t work. Please leave a comment below if you’d like to share your experience with other readers.

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