(STAR) AN APPLE A DAY By Tyrone M. Reyes, M.D. (Photo Illustration by Rey Rivera)

If you want to be really healthy, go beyond eating your veggies and add some good deeds to your diet: Research shows that altruism can positively impact your physical and mental well-being. “It’s good to be good, and science proves it,” says Stephen Post, PhD, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio.

Read on to learn how small acts of kindness can give your health a major boost this Christmas.

Reach Out To Stress Less

Feeling overwhelmed? Lend a helping hand. In a US National Institutes of Health study, researchers measured the brain activity of volunteers who dispensed cash to different sources as part of a computer game. When they “donated” money to charity instead of “keeping” it, they activated the part of the brain that produces oxytocin, a hormone that relaxes you, says Jordan Grafman, PhD, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Oxytocin also helps make you feel more attached to others, which is why your body naturally produces it when you cuddle up to someone or breastfeed a baby.

What to do: Find a philanthropic activity you enjoy, whether it’s volunteering in Gawad Kalinga, helping out in a school for special children, or joining a medical mission — and make it a part of your weekly, monthly or yearly routine.

Witness Kind Acts To Boost Your Immunity

Simply seeing people do compassionate things may help you get over that nasty cold faster. In a study conducted by behavioral psychologist David McClelland, students who watched a documentary about Mother Teresa helping the poor in Calcutta had significant increases in their levels of immunoglobulin A (a type of immune cell).

What to do: See benevolence in action by renting films such as Hotel Rwanda or I Am Legend, or watching TV shows like May Bukas Pa and Wish Ko Lang.

How To Make Kindness Routine

Committing to compassion can be as tough as sticking to a fitness plan. Try these strategies to make good deeds a regular part of your busy schedule.

• Start small. It could be as simple as striking up a friendly conversation with a seatmate on a plane who looks lonely, says Debbie Mandel, MA, a stress management expert and author of Turn on Your Inner Light.

• Choose an activity you enjoy. Think about what you like to do in your free time and go from there. (If you love sports, you may want to volunteer to coach or train a basketball team in your community).

• Be specific. Instead of saying, “I want to help children,” say, “I want to read to kids once a week.” That will help you figure where and how to make it happen.

• Buddy up. Invite a friend to join your mission so you can motivate each other.

• Put it in your calendar, even if your activity isn’t a regularly scheduled volunteer gig.

Fill A Void With A Healthy Habit

Many people cope with negative emotions by overeating, drinking or smoking. But research shows that you can get a healthier “helper’s high” instead. Pitching in actually raises endorphin and dopamine levels, which brings on feelings of euphoria. In a study of Alcoholics Anonymous members, people who didn’t become sponsors (helping others stay sober) were twice as likely as those who did to relapse in the year following the end of treatment. “One of the mottos of AA is ‘By helping others, I help myself,’” says Dr. Post, author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People.

What to do: You may need professional help to kick an addiction, but you can reduce the negative emotions — like stress and depression — that often lead to the development of bad habits and put some people at risk for addiction by making volunteering part of your regular schedule. Try working in a community project or cleaning up a beach, park or playground.

Strengthen Your Heart By Opening It

Cholesterol and blood pressure aren’t the only consideration when it comes to keeping your heart healthy. Negativity — anger, hostility, and resentment — has been linked to heart attacks and premature death. So have self-absorption and self-centeredness. In a study at the University of North Carolina, researchers surveyed medical students in their mid-20s and again in their mid-50s to measure their levels of hostility. People who scored high in hostility in their mid-20s were four to five times as likely to develop coronary heart disease in their mid-50s than those with lower scores. Interestingly, data from the Corporation for National and Community Service shows that coronary disease is lowest in states where the most people serve as volunteers.

• What to do: Hone your patience and listening skills by mentoring a child or visiting a home for the aged. These efforts will make you more attuned to others, and perhaps reduce negativity about your own life (since you’ll see how you stack up against those who are less fortunate).

Heal Others, Heal Yourself

If you’re battling a chronic illness, it’s easy to get depressed. But you’re not alone, there are those who are facing challenges similar to yours, whether it’s dealing with an illness or a special needs-child. Call a local hospital and find out how you can help other patients in recovery, be a hotline volunteer, or start a support group.

Share Your Time To Live Longer

Aiding others can even help you age gracefully. Researchers who followed almost 2,000 people over 55 found that those who volunteered regularly had a 44 percent lower likelihood of dying during the five years of the study. Those who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 63 percent lower mortality rate than non-volunteers. Even exercising four times a week doesn’t deliver that degree of life support.

What to do: Join forces with senior citizens who are still busy volunteering. Help out at an active senior center, get involved with a faith-based group or search for an intergenerational project in your community.

Worthy Activities

And lastly, here are other worthy activities you can consider:

• Give something away. Donate clothes to a charity or books to a library.

• Host a party with a purpose. Ask guests to bring nonperishable items (e.g. canned goods) to donate to a Christmas package drive.

• Cancel your office Christmas party and instead give food to an orphanage.

• Adopt a child for the holidays.

• Donate to a charity of your choice.

Have a wonderful and safe holiday season!

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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