Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a time to celebrate the birthday and reflect on Dr. King’s accomplishments and legacy. It is also a national day of service in which people are encouraged to use their day off from work or school to volunteer in their community. Individuals and groups across the country participate in community service, some making their first volunteer effort and many others pursuing a year-round service commitment.
You can maximize your impact in community service activities by being fit and healthy. Of course, there are ways for people of all physical abilities to contribute, but many service opportunities require a basic level of fitness to participate. And it’s certainly more enjoyable to volunteer if you’re not pushed to your limits. In fact, some service activities are similar in effort to many forms of exercise, and some may be compatible with maximal exercise. Unfortunately, the common pattern of inactivity and obesity can limit people’s ability to function optimally in school, work, or in leisure activities, including community service.
We classify the intensity of activities in units called metabolic equivalents or METs. One MET is the energy expended sitting at rest, so other activities would be multiples of that. For example, walking at 2.5 mph is about 3 METs and running at 6 mph is about 10 METs. MET values for hundreds of physical, occupational, household and leisure activities have been collected in the Compendium of Physical Activities.
Using this resource, the intensity of common community service activities can be determined.
For example, community cleanup efforts in parks and other public spaces often involve picking up trash, landscaping, and cleaning facilities. These activities typically range in intensity from 3 to 6 METs and involve lifting, carrying, and other full-body movements, much like exercise. Although people of all ages can participate in these activities, going through a full day requires a higher level of fitness.
Other programs involving construction, such as building a house for Habitat for Humanity, would have an even higher intensity. Construction in general is around 4 METs, but it can vary from light carpentry (2.5 METs) to carrying heavy tools and building materials (8+ METs). This is a similar intensity to circuit training in the gym or running outdoors.
Participating in events such as community walks, walks or runs to raise funds or awareness of important issues also requires being in good shape. Walking is reasonable for most people, but running takes more practice and effort. Long walks or volunteering at other events can also mean hours on your feet. No matter the event, you want to be fit enough to enjoy participating, rather than just surviving the day.
The good news is that there is something everyone can do. For example, donation centers like the Salvation Army offer many ways to help. While the fitness requirements for receiving donated furniture and boxes of clothing – lifting and carrying heavy loads – are compatible with many forms of exercise, organizing items and folding clothing are a lighter intensity and suitable for almost anyone who wants to volunteer.
The important thing is to participate in community service activities on MLK Day and throughout the year. Regular exercise can help improve your strength and endurance so you can do more. You already know exercise is good for your health, now you know it’s good for the health of your community too.