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Volunteer work in grade schools produces persistent health benefit for older black women

A Johns Hopkins study reveals that older black women who spend time with young children in the classroom are not only more active than similar women who don't volunteer, but seem to stay active.

Building on results of a 2006 Hopkins study showing that 15 hours of volunteer work a week at a grade school nearly doubled a sedentary older person's overall activity level, the new study demonstrates that the increased activity remains high for at least three years.

"This is one more piece of evidence that volunteer programs that are designed to increase the health of the volunteers can help older adults be more physically active," says Erwin Tan, Ph.D., assistant professor of geriatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and lead author of the study, which appeared online January 29 in the Journals of Gerontology. "Anything that increases a level of activity for a long period of time is a huge plus, 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."

Tan says the focus on black woman was due to their preponderance in two community groups from which study subjects were recruited, but he believes the results would be the same for all elderly.

He says exercise is a critical factor in maintaining people's health as they age. But his study also suggests that volunteer work can be designed to be a potential win-win for the elderly and the community.

For the new study, Tan and his team repeatedly surveyed and collected medical information on 71 black women, older than 65, involved in the Experience Corps (EC) Baltimore, a volunteer program developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Aging, which places elderly volunteers in kindergarten through third grade classrooms to be mentors and tutors for 15 hours a week.

That group was compared to survey and medical information gleaned from 150 black women from the Baltimore Woman's Health and Aging Studies (WHAS) a group of 1,400 women, older than 65, who live in 12 zip codes in Baltimore city and county and whose medical records have been tracked by Johns Hopkins since 1992.

Each participant filled out the Minnesota Leisure Time Physical Activity Questionnaire (MLTPAQ) at the start of the study and each year for three years. This questionnaire, which measures activity levels by rating calorie consumption, asks question about how a person spends free time and time on such things as household chores, exercise and leisure recreational activities.

When the researchers compared women from both groups who had little or no activity at the start of the study, women from the EC group burned twice as many calories as women in the WAHS group. This study shows that this increased physical activity was sustained throughout the three-year study period.

"Although our original eight-month study also showed this increase, the fact that it was sustained for three years illustrates the potential for a sustainable, long-lasting lifestyle change," says Tan. "And since this program has such a strong community-help component, it fits nicely with our new president's call to citizens to get involved and get active."


Contact: Eric Vohr
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

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