Altogether Better: How to Improve Your Health by Focusing On Community

Community - and personal health - are better when we're together

Community – and personal health – are better when we’re together

What makes for a healthy and resource-rich community? And what makes the individual resourceful and healthy? The answer to both questions, I aim to convince, is you do.

Of course the dominant message filtered to the masses is of the hopelessly disempowered individual. Living healthy in a wealthy community is more good luck than good management. Undoubtedly it’s a question of affluence, with a well-heeled community getting all it needs and most of what it wants. By the same token, a resourceful individual with sufficient disposable wealth can buy their wellbeing. Sound familiar?

What really makes for a healthy and resource-rich community?

But considering the first question, social scientist and commentator Robert Putnam argues communities become vibrant and abundant because they are civic, not the other way round.

Putnam conducted a long-term study of the regional governments in Italy to understand the conditions for developing strong, responsive and effective local representation. In his book, Making Democracy Work: Civic Tradition in Modern Italy, Putnam reports considerable differences between regions. For example, the worst region had 60% unemployment and was grossly under-resourced in many ways. The best region had a constant labor shortage.

Putnam explains these differences are not the result of affluence or politics or population movements, but instead the fabric binding any community – social capital.

From the short to the tall, social capital embraces any feature of social organization, including networks between family and friends, involvement within the community, and trust that exists between individuals and groups. The quality and intensity of social capital make the difference between a good community and a great one. Communities with a high level of social capital bound up in their norms, networks and traditions are better able to facilitate coordination and cooperation for everyone’s benefit. Central to achieving the benefits of improved social capital is trust.

Community involvement and social connectedness are essential for better schools, safer streets and healthier and longer lives

Building social capital creates better health

In another book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Putnam argues the US has experienced a collapse in civic and social life since the 1960s, with serious negative consequences. Against this trend, Putnam explains, is hard evidence that community involvement and social connectedness are essential for better schools, safer streets and healthier and longer lives.

Which brings us to the second question: the idea people who get involved with their own communities incur personal health benefits suggests a novel approach to improving individual health while simultaneously expanding community wellbeing. Could it be that volunteering is an antidote for all our cares and concerns?

Being involved with community and having strong social networks are as beneficial for your health as a good diet and regular exercise

According to the Department of Public Health at the University of Flinders in Australia, being involved with community groups and having strong social networks are as beneficial for your health as a good diet and regular exercise. We’ve known this for a while.

Researchers reported in a 1965 study of almost 7,000 Californian adults that people who lacked social and community ties were more likely to die during a nine-year follow-up period than people with more extensive contacts [1]. After adjusting for age, the relative risk of death was 2.3-fold higher for isolated men and 2.8-fold higher for isolated women compared to men and women with the most social contacts.

Furthermore, the association between social ties and mortality persisted even after considering such factors as self-reported physical health, socioeconomic status, smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, physical activity, and utilization of preventive health services!

The benefits of community involvement have been extensively studied in older adults where strong social ties and volunteerism have been correlated with improved health, functioning, life satisfaction and lifespan [2-4]. Although the temptation may be to explain such benefits in terms of increased physical activity [5], there is evidence that psychosocial factors related to altruism play a role [6].

Adolescents who increased the most in empathy and altruistic behaviors showed the greatest decreases in cardiovascular risk

Volunteering improves heart health in youth

The health benefits of volunteering are not limited to the elderly. A recent study investigating heart health in adolescent volunteers found that weekly volunteering with elementary school-aged children for two months significantly reduced cardiovascular risk factors compared with a wait-list control group [7]. Preliminary analyses showed that adolescents who increased the most in empathy and altruistic behaviors, and who decreased the most in negative mood, showed the greatest decreases in cardiovascular risk over time. The conclusion of the investigators was that adolescents who volunteer to help others also benefit themselves.

The county of Yorkshire and the Humber in England has taken the message of volunteerism to heart by creating the Altogether Better program. They’ve appointed community health champions who, with training and support, voluntarily bring their life skills to transform health and wellbeing in their communities. Whether in a family environment, the workplace or in the wider community, these community health champions empower and motivate people to get involved in healthy social activities, they create groups to meet local needs, and direct people to relevant support services. In short, community health champions help others to enjoy healthier lives by creating supportive networks and environments.

Becoming a community health champion has health benefits, such as increased self-esteem, confidence and well-being

This evidence-based model is proving to be an effective way of reaching people and is making a real difference within communities [8]. Champions are also influencing and shaping local services, increasing civic participation, initiating community development opportunities and gaining skills to move into further training, volunteering roles and employment. Becoming a community health champion has health benefits too, such as increased self-esteem, confidence and well-being.

If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re a community health champion too.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to our blog and sharing with your friends. And remember to leave a comment below.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  1. Berkman LF, Syme SL. Am J Epidemiol. 1979;109:186-204.
  2. Giles LC, et al. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2005;59:574-9.
  3. Barron JS, et al. J Urban Health. 2009;86:641-53.
  4. von Bonsdorff MB, Rantanen T. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2011;23:162-9.
  5. Manini TM, et al. JAMA. 2006;296:171-9.
  6. Sullivan GB, Sullivan MJ. J Cardiovasc Nurs. 1997;11:43-52.
  7. Schreier HM, et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2013;Feb 25:1-6. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.1100.
  8. Woodall J, et al. Perspect Public Health. 2013;133:96-103.

4 responses to “Altogether Better: How to Improve Your Health by Focusing On Community

  1. Pingback: Why Connectedness is Important: Social Isolation Causes Physical Disease | the mindbody doc·

  2. Pingback: Why Social Position is a Cause of Disease and What to Do to Improve Your Health Regardless of Position on the Ladder | the mindbody doc·

  3. Pingback: Why Adverse Childhood Experiences Cause Later Physical and Mental Disease | the mindbody doc·

  4. Pingback: Why Adverse Childhood Experiences Cause Physical Disease : The Turnstone·

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s