How is Civic Engagement Connected to Your Health?
With the upcoming federal election on October 21, it is a great opportunity to think about civic engagement. Although we think about civic engagement more during election times, it involves much more than just voting. Civic engagement covers a wide range of formal and informal activities such as: voting; volunteering; participating in group activities; and community gardening.
So what does civic engagement have to do with health? Our health is affected by much more than our individual health choices and genetics. The conditions of everyday life, and the systems in place to promote health, prevent disease, and support us when we get sick also greatly impact our health. The ‘social determinants of health’ is a name given to the many conditions that interact to influence our health and well-being. The social determinants of health are the circumstances in which people are born, live, learn, work, play and age, including social and community context which civic engagement is a part of.
Civic engagement provides a direct benefit to society and the community, but it also produces health benefits for people who are engaging. Civic engagement improves health by building an individual’s social capital. Social capital is defined as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit”. Essentially, social capital is a support system in your community. For example, a study found that members of community groups were more likely to be physically active because belonging to community groups expanded participants’ social networks, which made them more aware of opportunities to be physically active in their community.
Participating in the electoral process by voting or registering others to vote is another example of civic engagement that impacts health. A study found that voter participation was associated with better self-reported health, even after controlling for individual characteristics.
Volunteering is another common form of civic engagement that can yield health benefits. Studies show that volunteers enjoy better psychological well-being and more positive emotional health. Volunteering can increase social resources like having friends to call which may help explain the association between volunteering and reduced levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms. Volunteering might be especially beneficial for older adults; a study of adults age 60 and older found that volunteers had a lower risk of cognitive impairment.
Simply belonging to groups can improve health as well. Being a part of a group, formal (e.g., Girl Scouts, Kiwanis, Rotary, Parent-Teacher Association) or informal (e.g., book clubs, craft groups) has been shown to increase social capital and decrease social isolation among members, indirectly improving the physical and mental health of their members. Individuals who are involved in community gardening may gain the added benefits of forming a sense of neighborhood pride, experiencing an increased appreciation for their neighborhood and being more motivated to get involved in community life. Community gardens also increase access to healthy foods.
NorWest Community Health Centres is committed to providing a range of services that improve the health and well-being of people and the community, including issues related to the social determinants of health.
NorWest CHC offers a variety of health promotion and community-based programs and services, including: seniors programming; Indigenous Craft groups; Gender Journey's groups; being a host site for the Good Food Box program; Little Libraries, workshops and health information sessions. You do not need to be a registered client to participate in or volunteer for community-based programs. You can find our calendar of events on our website at www.norwestchc.org.
Naomi Giuliano is a Health Promoter at the NorWest Community Health Centres.
Feel Better, Live Longer, Be Happier