Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Benefits of Volunteering

The [Surprising] Benefits of Volunteering

A couple of months ago, I decided to do a post on volunteering. And when I sat down to learn more about its benefits, I found out some surprising things. After I completed it, I decided to wait and post it on April 1st, the beginning of National Volunteers Month. Then Covid-19 hit, and I wondered how relevant it would be. You may think there's not much you can do in the way of volunteer work currently. But it turns out there's quite a lot based on my internet search. So I have added a section at the end about volunteering during our coronavirus pandemic.

There's barely been a time in my adult life when I haven't been a volunteer somewhere. I started as a graduate student in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a member of the Planned Parenthood board of directors. As I entered my career in academic social work, I learned that volunteering at a community agency was an expected part of my service responsibilities. After Planned Parenthood, I volunteered on the board of a small family service agency and later did pro bono (unpaid, as a volunteer) work there as a counselor.

Later, I served on the board of directors of two different programs that delivered treatment services to clients with drug and alcohol problems, including serving as president. 

Of course I know that volunteers benefit the organizations where they donate their time and energy. But it wasn't until I started to do research for this post that I learned of the benefits of volunteering for the volunteers themselves.

Perhaps the best kept secret about volunteering is that it not only benefits the organizations, it's good for you as well. In fact, being a volunteer can have a dramatic effect on your overall well-being.

The Benefits of Volunteering Span Many Different Areas

Physical Health

The physical health benefits of volunteering have been well studied. People who volunteer have been found to live longer and are at lower risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Older adult volunteers have been found to walk more. Volunteering can reduce chronic pain.

Emotional/Mental Health

Volunteering has been associated with reduced stress, enhanced self-esteem and life satisfaction, and an improved sense of overall well-being. It is personally satisfying to feel that you have helped others. Being a volunteer can help counteract anxiety and combat depression. Volunteering has been found to enhance coping and problem solving.


Volunteering usually entails working with other people, either paid staff or volunteers (an exception might be assignments that entail primarily computer-based work). It can effectively combat loneliness and social isolation, which can be serious problems for older people not headed to work every day. Volunteering usually involves meeting new people, forming new social relationships and attachments. It can lead to new friendships.


School and the workplace are not the only settings where you can learn new things and develop new skills. Volunteering has even been found to reduce the risk of Alzheimers disease, probably because it  typically leads to learning new things and forming social connections. In addition, becoming a volunteer can help people to find new meaning and sense of purpose in life, especially those who have experienced losses, as is common in the elderly.

These benefits can be achieved with a few hours as two to three per week, or a hundred per year. Some studies have found that older people derive the most benefit from sharing themselves with others as volunteers. 

The bottom line: Volunteering can be fun. It makes us feel good when we get out and donate our time and energy to help others.

How to Find a Satisfying Volunteer Opportunity

The range of possible volunteer experiences is vast, spanning many sectors of society, organizations, and populations. People volunteer in the neighborhoods and in other countries, indoors or outdoors.
The key is to find a position you enjoy and are capable of performing.
To help find and opportunity that is a good fit for you, think about the following questions?

  • What are you passionate about? What causes are important to you? 
  • How much time can you commit?
  • What skills do you bring?
  • Would you prefer to work behind the scenes or in a more visible position?
  • Would you rather work alone or with a group of people?
  • Would you prefer to work with people (children, teens, or adults) or animal?
As you look for a position, don't jump at the first thing that comes along unless you feel it's a good fit. There are many organizations looking for volunteers and you might want to consider several, even visiting them in person, before making a final decision. The internet is your most valuable resource for finding opportunities, but don't overlook talking to friends about whether they volunteer.

A variety of organizations can use volunteers:

- Hospitals or other health agencies
- Libraries, museum, and cultural organizations
- Animal shelters and groups that rescue animals
- Social agencies and programs that serve children, such as kids in foster care or sports teams
- Outdoor-oriented groups such as recreation programs for kids
- Cities and towns
- Religious organizations such as churches or synagogues

When you consider a potential group to volunteer with, be sure to ask questions upfront about matters such as the minimum time commitment expected, whether particular skills or training are required, and whether you will be working with others or on your own. 

Volunteering during Covid-19

An internet search today (April 1, 2020) revealed that volunteers are needed more than ever during this pandemic. Online, I learned that many localities, counties usually, have recent posts about their need for volunteers. I saw that Pima County, home of Tucson, AZ, was seeking people with medical backgrounds, especially nurses, who might be willing to help out. It turns out that despite the fact that Arizona is under an executive order to "stay at home," volunteers are considered essential workers (I told you volunteers were important!).

Some opportunities I found doing a quick online search that you, too, can do include:
  • donating blood through the Red Cross
  • delivering meals while practicing appropriate social distancing
  • online tasks; contact local nonprofits in your area that might need your help
  • check out your local (county usually) United Way which works with many nonprofits that might benefit from your donated assistance
  • if you have basic sewing skills and a sewing machine, you can help by making masks and donating them to medical organizations; instructions and patterns can be found online
Obviously, the most important consideration is that you stay safe and not be sick if you would be interacting in any way with others. So, you should inquire in advance about whether and special safety precautions are necessary.

The website can be a good place to start looking for opportunities in your local community. If you're not already volunteering, maybe it's time to start! 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Still Finding Joy

We're all struggling with the coronavirus, COVID-19 in these trying, difficult times. Uncertainty breeds fear in all of us. It seems like we have no choice but to accept--or ideally, embrace--uncertainty. We yearn for someone who can tell us how bad it will get, how long it will last, how big the impact it will have on our economy and communities.

But no one can at this point.

On some days, the only time I'm not worried or on the verge of panic is when I'm in my husband's arms, totally immersed in writing (harder to do these days), or walking outside enjoying the green gorgeousness of the desert in spring.

Even when I try to read fiction, one of my daily pleasures, my mind wanders off into the future, wondering about where this will end and how much damage it will inflict on my family, friends, community, country and the world.

How to cope?

I have found I need immersive experiences that engage all of my senses. I learned that yoga works better than meditation, because I have to move. But the stillness of meditation is as important as ever.

While I was hiking yesterday, I saw all kinds of spring wildflowers. They brought me such joy that I started thinking about how important it is to actively work at finding joy in these trying, uncertain times.

Again today (I desperately need walk, to be outdoors), I found joy looking at the wildflowers and listening to the mockingbirds singing their hearts out as they search for mates.

When I realized how lucky I was to have a husband who loves me, it brought me joy.

I began to think about some of the things that still bring me joy that range across all of my senses.


  • the burbling fountain in my beautiful courtyard 
  • music as I write or walk
  • the birds twittering
  • rain, pattering on the windows
  • my grandchildren's laughter
  • my cat, purring his heart out


  • the nearby mountains, green right now after our plentiful spring rains and sunsets, of course
  • neighborhood families riding their bikes together
  • my dog, wagging her tail to greet me, with a big dog smile
  • bright pink bougainvillea cascading over a stone wall


Oh my goodness, this list could get very long. Food is so important to me, even when we're not in the middle of health crisis.

I've become so aware of my stress eating this past week. I especially want carbs--sweet ones--but almost everything seems to taste better.

My husband made an omelette for breakfast on Sunday, as he does every Sunday, and it just tasted so good! After interacting with all the panic shoppers these past weeks I wondered if there would be food shortages. It was a relief to read that that was not likely.

Your favorite tastes will be different, but here are some of mine:

  • fresh berries, a big juicy peach, and Rainer cherries in the summer
  • pasta, any kind, my ultimate comfort food, with lots of parmesan cheese
  • a big, salad, with crispy lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, ripe strawberries, and crunchy vegetables for texture
  • crusty, whole grain bread, slathered with butter,  alongside a homemade soup


  • a bunch of daffodils, the essence of spring
  • a pot of soup bubbling on the stove 
  • new-mown grass
  • basil, with its licorice-y scent wafting up and making me want to cook
  • the sweet fragrance of my neighbor's pot of petunias floating up as I walk by
  • the rosemary I pass as I walk by the closed fitness center and spa, the sun enhancing its distinctive scent


  • petting my cat, Harrison (Harry for short), as he purrs
  • a soft, fuzzy throw, to keep off the chill
  • hugs from family and friends; humans crave physical touch, which reduces stress hormones and actually fends off infection (in normal times); hugs may be what I miss most about this coronavirus outbreak
  • warm shower water cascading over my body, especially after a sweaty workout
  • crisp, clean sheets, as I crawl into bed at night
  • a cool breeze, ruffling the hairs on my arms

In these stressful times, we can still experience moments of joy, although we may have to work harder to find them. It is moments of joy and gratitude that will get us through this crisis.

What things still bring you joy?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Benefits of Optimism

Optimism Defined

Optimism is a personality characteristic that can be defined as "hopefulness and confidence about the future of the successful outcome of something." Conversely, pessimism is the "tendency to see the worse aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen; a lack of hope or confidence in the future."

What does optimism have to do with our health? A great deal, it turns out.

Health Benefits of Optimism

Optimistic people are at lower risk for developing chronic health problems such as cardiovascular disease. For example, decades of data from the Nurses' Health Study show that more optimistic women lived longer. The most optimistic women had a 50% chance of living to age 85, according to a recent article by my favorite health writer, herself a septuagenarian, Jane Brody:

How Does Optimism Translate into Health Benefits?

A couple of different pathways of possible causality have been hypothesized. We know that optimistic people tend to take better care of their health, are more likely to exercise and eat healthy. Optimists also tend to be better problem solvers and are better able to reframe difficult circumstances, such as finding out you didn't get a job you wanted, and react with less stress. In contrast pessimists tend to get more stressed out. And when they do, their bodies are inundated
with the stress hormone cortisol. Although cortisol helps in a fight-or-flight situation, when it is present chronically, it causes unhealthy wear and tear on the body. Acutely, cortisol tends to suppress inflammation, but chronic secretion of cortisol-being stressed out all the time--tends to increase inflammation, which is associated with a variety of health problems such as diabetes and osteoarthritis.

Also, optimistic people are likely to persist in the face of obstacles, rather than throwing up their hands and giving up. Let's say an overweight woman who has been relatively sedentary her whole life has a heart attack. The doctor says she must eat healthier, lose weight, and start to exercise. A pessimistic outlook would say, "No way. I've always been overweight and never exercised. It's too late to start now. I'm doomed to die an early death." A more optimistic woman might say, "Wow, I've been given a second chance. I need to meet with a nutritionist and get myself started on walking every day with a goal of 7500 steps."

Measurement of Optimism: The Life Orientation Test-R

If you're not sure how optimistic (or pessimistic) you are, you can rate yourself using a standard, 10-item scale used in scientific research. Developed by psychologists at the University of Miami, the scale has been used extensively in behavioral and health research and can be accessed with the link below that also explains how to score it: The Life Orientation Test-Revised.

What if I'm more pessimistic than optimistic?

It turns out that one's degree of optimism tends to be stable over the lifespan. Children and adolescents who are optimistic tend to be optimistic as adults. Does that mean if you learn you tend to be a pessimist that you are stuck being a pessimist forever?

According to recent work in the health field, the good news is you can train yourself to be more optimistic. In other words, you can improve your outlook on life, and that is true no matter what age you are. Cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman has written a whole book about it. 
Our worldview tends to consist of a set of thoughts that occur automatically, without conscious effort. The first step to becoming more optimistic is to recognize toxic, negative, pessimistic thinking. A friend or therapist can be helpful here.

Next, when you've caught yourself having a pessimistic thought, such as "I'm never going to be able to stop drinking for the rest of my life," or "There's no way I'll ever be able to walk a mile," substitute a more optimistic thought (that is still realistic) such as "But I know I can stay sober today, " or But I can walk around the block and work up to a mile." With practice it gets easier.


Gratitude has been found to be an effective antidote to pessimism.
It's easy to feel grateful if things are going well, although some people take that for granted. If you have enough money, a good place to live, if you're healthy, if you have as much social connectedness as you'd like, gratitude may come easily. Feeling grateful is more challenging if things are not going so well, if your health is poor, or your living circumstances are unsatisfactory, if you're lonely. 

But almost anyone, no matter what their circumstances, can find something to be grateful for, because things can always be worse than they are.

See my related post on Active Gratitude.

Is There a Downside to Optimism?

Only if we get too carried away and develop unrealistic views or expectations. For example, as a writer I submit material for publication in literary magazines. Large numbers of rejections are inevitable. If my optimism is such that I expect to have every story accepted by al the journals I submit to, I'm setting myself up for inevitable disappointment. A more realistic optimistic view might be: If I'm persistent and keep on submitting, chances are that eventually, my stories will find a home.

As I read Jane Brody's column and did research for this post, I was down deep in a nasty that didn't seem to want to retreat. I was feeling bummed out, dispirited, uncharacteristically negative and pessimistic. Just reading about optimism improved my mood and reminded me to be grateful for all my blessings.

Do you want to be happier, healthier, and live longer? Then work on being more optimistic. What have you got to lose?

Radical Kindness

I recently read the words “radical kindness” in a New York Times column David Brooks wrote on the film about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” 
Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good

I thought, if ever there was a time for radical kindness, it is now. So many things in the world are in flux. Political issues have become so toxic and polarized. It’s easy to lapse into cynicism and despair. Radical kindness may be just the antidote we’ve been looking for. I hope we would all agree that the world would benefit from more kindness.

Intrigued by the radical kindness concept, I googled it. There was surprisingly little written about it. 

We all have a pretty good idea what kindness means. But what is radical kindness? The word “radical” denotes drastic change. It’s radical because we don't expect it.

Radical kindness involves intentionally treating everyone—everyone—with kindness, regardless of how they have treated us. It’s easy to be kind to people we care about or who have been kind to us. That’s all well and good, but it’s not radical kindness. The radical kind entails going out of our way to say or do something thoughtful or gracious irrespective of how that person has treated us.

If you’ve ever tried to be nice to someone who hasn’t been nice to you, you know how challenging it can be. 

 For example, say you're at the coffee shop and order an expensive, fancy coffee. When you start to drink it you realize the barista hasn’t prepared it correctly, has made it with caffeine when it should have been decaf, or used the wrong flavored syrup. Having spent $5 for it, you decide to go back and complain about it, which you do politely and ask for a new drink. 

But the barista gets all snippy on you, arguing that it was your mistake, not hers, when you’re quite certain you ordered it correctly.

What happens next? It's tempting get all snippy right back, getting in her face, indignantly arguing that it was her mistake, or to insist on talking to the manager. 

Or you could pause mindfully, take a deep breath, and try to look at it from her perspective. You could be very apologetic and say, “I’m so sorry. I’m pretty sure I ordered it decaf. It must be stressful having so many orders come in so quickly. Can I treat you to a coffee?” It takes courage to do this.

It might or might not get you a free replacement or get the barista to change her approach, but you’re bound to feel good about how you handled it, about your generosity of spirit. After all, it’s only a cup of coffee. 

Because here’s the thing: What goes around comes around. When we’re nice to someone else, especially someone who doesn't necessarily earn our kind behavior, we feel good about ourselves.

Here are some suggestions for how you can incorporate radical kindness in your life:

Radical Kindness Strategies 
See also this website7 Secrets to Radical Kindness

Gratitude – I’ve written elsewhere on my blog about the power of active gratitude. Kindness and gratitude are best friends. A grateful person who appreciates life’s blessings finds it easy to be generous and kind to others. Cultivate gratitude, and kindness will come naturally.

Volunteering – helping others can be a form of radical kindness. See my related post on the considerable benefits of volunteering.

Self-kindness – too many of us, especially women, are really hard on ourselves. It's so easy to beat ourselves up when we make a mistake or don't reach a coveted goal. I know I can be my toughest critic.

Be compassionate to yourself as well as others. Treat yourself the way you would hope a close friend would treat you. The two things I have found most helpful here are mindfulness and sharing with a trusted friend or partner. 

When you’re feeling crappy about something, try stepping back, pausing, and taking a couple of mindful inhalations. Follow this with a few positive affirmations, such as:

·     You’ve got this
·     It’s all going to be okay
·     This too shall pass
·     You're okay


Monday, June 29, 2015

High Intensity Interval Training

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a form of cardiovascular exercise that has been found to improve overall conditioning, boost metabolism, and burn fat.  It has been a part of the training of serious athletes for a long time and has become increasingly popular with more casual exercisers in the past few years.

HIIT entails alternating short bursts of high intensity anaerobic exercise, making your heart work much harder, interspersed with more moderate levels of recovery.  It requires high motivation because it is very physically demanding and therefore not for everyone.  But if you already exercise regularly and are looking to ramp up your exercise program, HIIT may be just the thing for you.

 According to Wikipedia, “HIIT exercise sessions generally consist of a warm up period, then several repetitions of high intensity exercise separated by medium intensity exercise for recovery, then a cool down period.”

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) tells us that high intensity intervals should be performed at about 80 to 95% of capacity or maximum heart rate.  It should feel like you are exercising hard or very hard, to the point where it would be difficult to carry on a conversation.

In contrast, recovery intervals should be done at about 40 to 50% of maximum heart rate, a low enough level to allow you to recover sufficiently to move on to the next interval.  Note: older people may require a longer recovery period.  

HIIT can be done with almost any form of aerobic or cardio exercise including walking, running, biking, swimming, or elliptical training.


According to Wikipedia and ACSP, based on research, HIIT has numerous benefits:
  • Improved blood pressure and cardiovascular health,
  • Improved insulin sensitivity (important for diabetics or pre-diabetics),
  • Reduced abdominal fat

And according to the ACSP, not only do HIIT workouts burn more calories during the workout itself, but also afterwards compared to regular cardio workouts that don’t involve high-intensity intervals.

Safety Concerns:  Who Can Practice HIIT? 

HIIT is not appropriate for people who have been largely sedentary, at least until they “establish a foundational level of fitness” (ACSM).  People with cardiovascular conditions (e.g., hypertension, high cholesterol, or who smoke), diabetes or obesity should not attempt HIIT without being first evaluated by a physician and cleared for exercise.

Before beginning HIIT, you should be able to exercise at least 20-30 minutes at 70-85% of your maximum heart rate [see below for maximum heart rate].  

Starting an HIIT Program

The whole exercise period can last from 20 to 60 minutes.  There is no generally agreed upon specific formula for length or ratio of the high intensity intervals versus the recovery periods. In what I read I saw that the ratio can range from 1:1 (equal length intervals of intensity and recovery) to 1:4 (recovery periods last 4 times as long as intervals, e.g., 30 seconds at 80 to 90% followed by 2 minutes of recovery).  

The exact ratio depends on person’s level of fitness, with serious athletes better able to have longer high intensity intervals and shorter recovery periods.  People who only have a short period to exercise like HIIT because the high intensity can be a way of getting a lot of benefit in a relatively short time frame.

Begin each HIIT session with at least 5 minutes of warm up and 5 minutes of cool down.  The graphic below depicts a sample schedule if you are interested in trying HIIT:

How often should you engage in HIIT?   Because it takes longer for your body to recover completely from HIIT, no more than three times per week is recommended.  Depending on your conditioning, you might want to start out with once a week and gradually move up to three times per week.  You can, and should, customize HIIT to your own fitness level.

Maximum heart rate and exercise

According to the Centers for Disease Control, maximum heart rate is determined by subtracting your age from 220 (in my case 220 - 66 = 153 beats per minute).  Vigorous exercise is performed at 70 to 85% of your your maximum heart rate.  Therefore HIIT would be considered extremely vigorous at 80 to 95%.  Moderate activity is considered to be 50 to 70% of your max heart rate.

My HIIT Program

About three times per week I have been doing 6 to 10 intervals during a 35 to 40 minute period of exercise on an elliptical machine.  I warm up first for at least 5 minutes.  My intervals last from 30 to 45 seconds, and I get my heart rate up to 80 to 90% of the maximum, 122 to 138.  I follow each high-intensity interval with a recovery interval of 2 to 4 minutes at 50%, although my heart rate stays pretty high, 100 to 110.  I have been enjoying it.  It makes an otherwise pretty boring session of cardio a lot more interesting by setting up challenges.

If you are already exercising pretty regularly, give it a try!

Wisdom and Aging

I've been thinking a lot lately about wisdom, perhaps because I say the Serenity Prayer pretty much every day (“God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I
can, and the wisdom to know the difference”).  Also, recently someone said to me that some things I had said in a meeting were very wise.  Hmmm...

One of the stereotypical hallmarks of aging is wisdom. Have older people cornered the market on wisdom?  Am I wiser now than when I was younger?  Can you foster wisdom in people?  

What exactly is wisdom?

When I did some research on wisdom, I found that there wasn’t a whole of agreement on what wisdom is.


Wikipedia defines wisdom as “the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight.” 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines wisdom as:  “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand; knowledge of what is proper or reasonable, good sense or judgment.”

So, wisdom might consist of:  knowledge, good judgment, good decision-making, the ability to apply experience and knowledge, common sense, and insightfulness.

There may be more discussion about and research on wisdom these days as the bulging Baby Boom generation – our generation – moves into old age.   Researchers agree that wisdom is hard to study, but not necessarily on what it is.

Research by gerontologists and psychologists tells us that some of the characteristics of people deemed wise include:

  • Higher well-being
  • Ability to accept reality with equanimity
  • High self-awareness but low self-centeredness
  • Better, more active coping
  • Good emotional regulation
  • Humility
  • Reflective
  • Empathetic
  • Pragmatic
  • Learn from previous negative experiences
  • Generous

A New York Times Magazine article called "The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis" from 2007 noted that “certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: a clear-eyed view of human nature and the human predicament; emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity; an openness to other possibilities; forgiveness; humility; and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences.”

The Times article goes on to discuss a California study of older people:

“What the Stanford researchers [Laura Carstensen and colleagues] have found — in the laboratory and out in the world — is that despite the well-documented cognitive declines associated with advancing age, older people seem to have figured out how to manage their emotions in a profoundly important way. Compared with younger people, they experience negative emotions less frequently, exercise better control over their emotions and rely on a complex and nuanced emotional thermostat that allows them to bounce back quickly from adverse moments. Indeed, they typically strive for emotional balance, which in turn seems to affect the ways their brains process information from their environment.”

There seems to be agreement that being old, or older, doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom. 
According, again, to The New York Times: "Surprisingly, a good deal of evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, suggests that the seeds of wisdom are planted earlier in life -- certainly earlier than old age, often earlier than middle age and possibly even earlier than young adulthood.  And there are strong hints that wisdom is associated with an earlier exposure to adversity or failure.  

I really agree with the latter point regarding adversity.  When I think of the people I would consider to have wisdom, all have struggled with some type, maybe multiple types of adversity at some point in their lives.

What do you think about wisdom?  How important is it to you as an older woman to be wise?  How have you benefited from the wisdom of others?  who do you know that you would consider to be wise?  Food for thought...