A few weeks ago, News Publisher Catherine Moore described encountering Conni Cross cheerfully putting out evergreen branches to beautify the streets of Lake Placid one damp, cold, windy and snowy Sunday afternoon. Cross seems to be in splendid health and spirits no matter the circumstances as do people like Jim and Keela Rogers, Linda Friedlander, Mary and Dean Dietrich, Georgia Jones, Paul and Rosemary Reiss, Jim and Judy Shea, Betsy Lowe and so many others.
In common, they volunteer a lot. They sometimes take on the nastiest of jobs under taxing conditions with the disposition like a vacationer frolicking on the beaches of Cancun. It turns out that volunteering is one of the best activities one can do to improve one's health - doing so will actually extend one's life an average of two years, not to mention the amount of money saved by not having to purchasing pills to ward off pain and depression.
I learned this good news by attending Dr. Stephen G. Post's presentation at the Adirondack Health Foundation's annual health symposium to the Lake Placid Conference Center Nov. 6 where I had the opportunity to visit nearly two dozen tables featuring local venders offering a wide variety of health-related services, many that I had no idea were available to keep me well.
Kathy McHugh and Chandler Ralph of Adirondack Health with speaker Dr. Stephen Post (Photo by Naj Wikoff)
"We established these annual health symposiums 16 years ago because people are really interested in their health and in keeping themselves healthy, their physical health and their mental health as well," said Chandler Ralph, Adirondack Health CEO. "The idea is to help keep people out of the hospital in the first place. We are looking to prevent chronic diseases: How do we keep pre-diabetic people from becoming diabetic, as an example, and reduce childhood and adult obesity? We really need to get people moving. Those are our two big health challenges right now."
Health vendors addressed Chandler's concerns. Some stimulated the mind as well as the body. Juice Plus addressed nourishment, Mercy Care quality of life for older adults, and Adirondack Massage had people lined up for 10 minutes of relaxation sessions.
"I am with Fit for Life, Med Fits and the rehabilitation department at the Lake Placid Hospital," said Kari Fitzsimmons. "Our ultimate goal is to keep people active and healthy. We motivate people and keep them active at whatever level they are physically. At Fit for Life we communicate directly with physicians when physician referral is requested, which we can help people accomplish. For every other program, people should just give us a call. An event like this is important to us because not only do we get to meet current patients and clients, and supporting them further, but also to network with colleagues and meet new people."
"Our mission is to provide care for a person who is diagnosed with a serious illness and need help and support wherever they are living. We focus on quality of life, patient wishes, and family and caregiver support," said Katie Callan from High Peaks Hospice. "I am extremely lucky to get to know the people I get to know and to be present for the moments that I am present with them."
"Essex Country Public Health takes a population-based approach to health," said Jessica Darney-Buehler. "We work on policies, environmental strategies and systems changes that create environments that are healthy for people to live in. A lot of the conditions we see - be it diabetes, heart disease, or cancer - have some things that are related to lifestyle. We want to be sure people eat healthily, have access to physical activities and other things around those areas that help promote healthy living."
"The Pain Management Clinic is located in the hospital and we use non-prescriptive procedural pain management," said Veronica Ellithrope. "Many people are living with pain a long time before they get to us. When you really get to the point of no return we can use a spinal cord stimulator that emits tiny electrical pulses that sort of masks or distracts the pain for all sorts of back pain. It's amazing. It really is for people who have lived with all sorts of pain for years to be able to get up in the morning and just go."
The featured event was listening to symposium keynote speaker, Dr. Post, author of "The Hidden Gifts of Helping" and president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, the title and startup funding a gift of the Templeton Foundation.
"We have conducted innovative studies over the years on why it's good to be good, and why it's good to be generous, giving, and loving," said Dr. Post. "I have a definition of love from psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan: 'When the happiness, security and well-being of another person is as real and meaningful to you as your own, you love that person.' Nowadays there are great studies being done about what's going on when we focus our minds on just helping another human being."
Post has been a leader in such research. A game changer was conducted in 2010 for United Health Care, one of the largest managed health systems in the United States. United Health Care wanted to know if the benefits of being generous and contributing to people's lives hold true. In other words, is one of the reasons people like Cross are so cheerful and healthy is because they volunteer so much?
United supported a random scientific study of 5,500 American adults 18 years of age and older, everyday people, not professionally involved in the healing arts. Forty-one percent said they volunteered, 96 of them said volunteering made them happier, and 78 percent said volunteering helps them recover from loss and disappointment.
"What brain studies show is that when you are focusing on helping another person it actually shuts down the brain circuits associated with hostility, bitterness, rumination, and all those kids of things. You push aside all those self-destructive emotions when you focus on helping others kind of activities," said Post. "Volunteering leads to better friendships. People hang out with people they volunteer with. Friends are people you move forward with who have deeper shared values, people you can count on and who make sure you stay on course.
"People who volunteer sleep better; they have a 73 percent lower stress rate. If you could take those benefits and put on a scale of 1 to 10, insulin is 9.5 in the treatment of diabetes. Volunteering is a 7 or 8, right up there. These benefits are available to us when we live the right kind of life. We know that when people engage in face-to-face caring activities they release a hormone called oxytocin that creates a sense of inner peace, alleviates stress, and provides a sense of go-with-the-flow."
"I thought the talk was very good, very appropriate," said Cyndee McGuire, Adirondack Health COO. "It reinforced something I already believed in; I think that giving, connecting with your inner self, makes you feel better."