In my adult lifetime, I have lived in several states and taught at a different fitness facility in each one. One was a national chain; one was a private local endeavor; two have been YMCAs. By far, the YMCAs have been the more rewarding workplaces.

The difference? I can give more of myself at the YMCA. By exercising my “giving muscles,” I am healthier and happier.

Let me explain. YMCAs are concerned with our physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual health. They seek to meet community needs and create a stronger community in the process.

By contrast, the corporate and private gyms I experienced focused primarily on physical fitness. People were often not interested in connecting with others.

Wherever we work and live, we have a choice: do we make a conscious decision to help others, or do we stay to ourselves?

Tony Stark faces this poignant dilemma in the Marvel movie Avengers: Endgame. Does he choose to help those that desperately need his expertise? Or does he ignore their pleas? (No spoilers, I promise.)

What kind of person do we want to be? Do we want others to describe us as generous, kind, big-hearted? Then let’s consider this exercise principle: we strengthen what we use.

I teach a barbell strength training class, and our members take it seriously. They show up, they lift, and they get the corresponding health benefits: stronger bodies. Amazing, right?!

Likewise, sharing our time, our talents, and our treasures with others flexes our “giving muscles” - and we become healthier and happier in the process. Through daily acts of kindness, volunteer work, and/or financial support, we can experience inward transformation.

National Institute of Health researchers discovered an endorphin release in the brains of individuals who donated to charities. This elated feeling is known as the “helper’s high.” We also feel it when we are excited for someone to open a special gift.

In addition to elevating our mood, giving to others can also boost our physical health. Lower blood pressure, lower stress levels, increased self-esteem, less depression, and longer life span are the major documented health benefits of active giving.

In a Carnegie Mellon study, adults over age 50 who volunteered regularly were less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who did not. Also, researchers have found that older adults who help their loved ones experience less depressive symptoms.

A separate study took 100 teenagers who had similar cholesterol and body mass index (BMI) levels and divided them into two groups. One group volunteered once a week, and the other did not. After two months, the volunteer group had lower cholesterol levels and lower average body mass index (BMI).

So for the good of both ourselves and our community, let’s use our giving muscles. Let’s meet a need in our family, our neighborhood, our community. Let’s do more than pump iron - let’s practice goodness, charity, and kindness. Here’s to our health, Southwest Michigan!

By Chrissie Kaufmann, YMCA of Southwest Michigan