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Seniors Can Volunteer Their Way to Fitness

Although a lot of seniors don't work out, they will work for a good cause.

"If you try to exercise by yourself, you'll generally come up with any excuse not to do it,'' says David R. Pearson, Ph.D., director of the Strength Research Laboratory at Ball State University. "The only person you let down is yourself."

"With volunteering, you are involved with a group where you have to make a commitment,'' Dr. Pearson says. "You're not going to let the group down.''

A good many Good Samaritans have found they can exercise their civic duty and their bodies at the same time, by volunteering for a cause that involves physical activity. From walking dogs for an animal shelter to delivering Meals on Wheels to coaching a youth sports team, there are a lot of ways to combine altruism with activity.

VolunteerMatch, an online service that helps place volunteers, makes more than 20,000 referrals a year to sports and recreation groups alone. But you don't have to be an athlete. You can:

  • Lead walking tours of museums, gardens, or historical or architectural sites.

  • Help clean up an area park, nature preserve, beach or roadway.

  • Build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

  • Help people with disabilities take part in an outdoor pastime.

"There are tons of opportunities out there,'' says Susan Hughes, co-director of the Center for Research on Health and Aging at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "And the feeling of altruism that you gain can be a great reinforcement to help you maintain your enthusiasm and level of commitment.''

That's the key to beating the boredom that can sink a fitness plan, Dr. Pearson says. "If we look at it as something other than exercise, then all of a sudden it becomes fun,'' he says. "Find something that is important in your life that involves being active and make that your commitment.''

A desire to help

Mark Andrews, founder of Therapeutic Adventures, says a desire to help is the only real must. "I've never turned somebody down who wants to be a volunteer,'' says Mr. Andrews, whose non-profit group runs a variety of outdoor activities for the physically and mentally challenged. "The more proficient your skills, the more work you can do at a higher level, but we always need extra manpower." The work will leave you "in better physical condition and no worse for wear.''

To improve your health, Dr. Pearson suggests you commit to at least two workouts a week that keep you on the move for at least half an hour. The more intense the workout, the more you gain. "But anything is better than nothing,'' he says.

An exercise in volunteer work

Whether you want to coach or clean, instruct or construct, here are tips for volunteering:

  • Consider the skills you can offer. If you've played a particular sport, you might want to teach youths what you know. If your skills are more academic, think about leading a walking tour of the local sights.

  • Look for groups that deal with causes you care about. VolunteerMatch and SERVEnet let you search for opportunities by ZIP code and area of interest. You can often find a list of groups that need volunteers in your local library or telephone book.

  • Before you take up out-of-the-ordinary physical activity, check with your doctor. This is a must if you have been sedentary.

  • Don't overcommit. Make sure the volunteer work fits into your life so you don't tire yourself too much. Start slowly. Volunteer for just a few hours, until you get the feel of things.

Source: Independent Sector