Volunteering: A new way to get active for seniors

Research shows older adults who donate their time have lower mortality rates, less depression and higher self-esteem. (WCHS/WVAH)

For thousands of Americans retirement is becoming a whole new chapter in life with time to get physically active and extend your life.

Mel Skiles, a Carolina Mountain Club volunteer in Ashville, North Carolina, said he's never been out of shape. He's been active his whole life, and is amazingly fit because of it.

“I’ve done something ever since I was a young kid," he said. "I’m 72 years old.”

The former radiologist moved to North Carolina with his wife Sandra to be closer to their grandchildren.

Skiles retired in February 2011 and started the Appalachian Trail two weeks later. The 2,181 mile trek was the fitness challenge of his life.

“That in itself was a life changing experience for me,” Skiles said. “It was the hardest thing I ever did, but most wonderful thing I've done.”

He said he's harnessed his passion to suit up as a certified chain saw operator, clearing trails for others as a volunteer with the Carolina Mountain Club.

“I take rakes and all kinds of things," Skiles said. "It’s like I’m in there with nature seeing the physical world and I’m not stressed out about daily activities or what I need to do with my schedule."

Rebecca Chaplin, a community outreach director with AARP, said Skiles is a great example of being physically active, socially engaged and connected to nature.

Connecting to nature is known to reduce to blood pressure, she said.

“But also volunteering is said to reduce the incidence of heart disease, being a part of anything that gives them excitement they're gonna increase their serotonin and increase their connectivity with the community,” Chaplin said.

Chaplin has spent her career helping others after their working careers are over.

“Once you move beyond that stage of life making money, power, prestige, what are we really here for?" she asked. " We're here to give our gifts and to be our passion in the world.”

Skiles agreed.

“My mind is free and I feel I don’t have any aches or pains," he said. "Being 72 and not having aches and pains, I’m fortunate I feel gratitude for that.”

Research shows older adults who donate their time have lower mortality rates, less depression and higher self-esteem.

The AARP said one report found states with a high volunteer rate have lower incidences of heart disease.

A study by Johns Hopkins University showed volunteering has significant brain benefits for aging adults, because it gets you moving and thinking at the same time.

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