Doing well by doing good: The “medicine of social interaction” increases longevity; is win/win for Black Girls Run.

By David Martin, RN, CEO and President, VeinInnovations

Brand-new life expectancy numbers for U.S. citizens are now at 78.8 years, according to the latest report just released by the Centers for Disease Control.

While it is good to look at what helps us live longer, it is also good to look at what helps us live better, too.

The 78.8 years represents an average. Many Americans die earlier than expected from preventable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death in 2013.

Knowing such a high proportion of deaths are from preventable causes, researchers at the University of Michigan and Stony Brook University Medical Center studied factors that could help reduce early deaths in older adults.

One clear finding is the benefit of the “medicine of social interaction,” specifically, being with and giving to others.

For Atlantan Toni Carey, a public relations maven and co-founder of the nonprofit Black Girls Run, the value of social interaction as “medicine” comes as no surprise.

Ashley Hicks and Toni Carey, co-founders or Black Girls Run;

Ashley Hicks and Toni Carey, co-founders or Black Girls Run;

Toni Carey with a Girls on the Run participant.

Toni Carey with a Girls on the Run participant.

Carey’s group is an outgrowth of her noticing a marked transformation – physically, spiritually, and emotionally – in her business partner and longtime friend, Ashley Hicks, after Ashley started running. Inspired and motivated, Carey started running too.

“We realized there was not a lot of minority participation in running. I saw how isolating running it could be, just as people in my family were being diagnosed with diabetes. So Ashley and I started looking at running as maybe a possible solution to the health crisis in African American women. When I told my mom I was going to run a 10K, she told me that black people don’t run, and that my uterus would fall out.

“But Ashley and I did a runner’s meet-up in Atlanta, and saw the interest. We got involved, too, with Girls on the Run,(GOTR). We saw the potential of black women being involved with this group, in getting young black girls involved. And we knew we were onto something. That was in 2009, and now we have 70 groups in cities across the U.S., and more than 200,000 women involved, meeting to run together and to support each other.

“As we go into schools, we see a lot of broken spirits. You can see that with the little girls, by the way a girl carries herself, the way she interacts with other girls, the way she talks about what is going on with her life. The same can be said for women,” she continued.

“The women use running together as a way to rehabilitate themselves, and it is the most fascinating thing. Usually when women come to us they are going through divorce or some kind of health issue. Running is that thing that helps them sort it all out. It runs way deeper than the running though, it really is transformational.

Black Girls Run Participant

Black Girls Run Participant

“We see women come in; they are unsure of themselves. They may even hate running. But the more they get involved, the more they feel like they want to give back, as ambassadors helping other women, or in volunteering with the girls at GOTR. The running as a group has given them a sense of responsibility, of purpose,” Carey said.

Purpose shows up throughout the studies on why giving back is so good for your health.

The University of Michigan and Stony Brook University Medical Center researchers’ findings showed great promise for increasing longevity, especially in groups such as older adults, though the findings also held up in younger people.

Aside from the benefits to volunteers’ psychological and physical health, they also regularly have lower rates of depression, better everyday physical functioning, and enjoy a greater sense of psychological well being.

This was true even when allowances were made for gender (as women live longer than men) and wealth.

Aside from the obvious fact that volunteering connects people to more social resources, researchers said the sense of deeper meaning, when compared with other types of social activities, was an important factor in why volunteering added years to lives.

No doubt Toni Carey would agree, as she watches thousands of African American women across the U.S. shape new lives, and new shapes, for themselves. And while there is no concrete health data on her program yet, it is not a stretch to think that the longevity factor could benefit and extend beyond this generation of women runners and volunteers to the girls they are coaching, and generations beyond.

For more information, and links to resources mentioned in this story:

Changes in Life Expectancy by Race and Hispanic Origin in the United States, 2013–2014

Leading Causes of Death

Motives for Volunteering Are Associated With Mortality Risk in Older Adults

The Medical Benefits of Volunteering

Ashley Hicks and Toni Carey

Girls on the Run

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