Prescription for Better Health: Toastmasters
Research links health maintenance to club membership.
By Theodore Lustig, DTM
“Take in two Toastmasters meetings and call me in the morning.”
Does this sound like an unlikely prescription from the doctor? Based on medical and sociological research, it’s actually sound advice for improving one’s well-being. Pick up any piece of Toastmasters literature or visit www.toastmasters.org and you’ll find an array membership benefits: improved communication and leadership skills, personal and career enhancement, development of self-confidence, networking and camaraderie. But what you might not find on this list is a mention that Toastmasters membership can be good for your health!
In the first century A.D., Roman moralist Juvenal touted the importance of “a sound mind in a sound body.” Now 2,000 years later, modern medical and health-related research supports the notion that a person’s active involvement in organizations that engage the mind – such as Toastmasters International – benefits one’s health. It can positively affect a variety of conditions, including stress, mild depression, heart problems and some of the debilities of advancing age.
Nothing in this broad spectrum of research specifically names Toastmasters. Therefore, I’m not suggesting membership in Toastmasters as a substitute for necessary medical treatment. But the research does indicate that socially oriented organizations like ours provide settings that can benefit a person’s health. To be sure, Toastmasters engage in stimulating and interactive types of activities; they meet and become friends with a diverse group of people, and they learn and improve themselves in a mutually supportive environment. All of these activities can benefit a member’s sense of well-being as well as physical health.
Let’s take this concept a step further by looking at some specific health problems that are endemic in today’s society. Positive social relationships often help people deal with these issues. High among these problems is stress, which can help people be productive but is also debilitating in many ways.
Mark Gorkin, a Washington, D.C., social worker, says, “A person, in response to prolonged stress and physical, mental or emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships.” The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, and a feeling of being drained. Consequently, health problems emerge.
Combat Stress with Social Support
Experts say these stress-related problems can be diminished when people develop a strong social support system and become involved in activities that spark their interest and sharpen their cognitive skills. One solution, says Dr. Andy Morgan, a psychiatry professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, is to seek a sense of personal accomplishment, so that stress becomes a challenge and not a burden.
The Toastmasters program provides both the environment and the opportunity to fulfill such goals. Successfully preparing and delivering speeches can counteract several basic causes of stress: tensions generated by an inability to communicate, lack of self-esteem, and the feeling that one is isolated from and unsupported by other people.
Remedy for Depression and Burnout
Stress is often a precursor for another, more acute ailment: depression. This condition can take two forms. The first, called clinical or unipolar depression, can be life-threatening, requiring medical treatment and extensive therapy. The second, called mild depression, can affect energy levels, self-esteem and concentration, but is usually less debilitating and of shorter duration. (It still, however, may involve therapy and medication of some form.)
Mild depression is often triggered by a loss, such as the death of a family member or friend, the end of a close relationship, an illness, a business reversal or the loss of a job. Most therapists urge those struggling with mild depression to avoid isolating themselves and to engage in supportive activities that offer education, reassurance or confidence-building.
Again, the Toastmasters program fits the bill. Members learn a great deal by delivering and listening to speeches on a wide range of subjects, and they develop self-esteem by building their communication and leadership skills.
Another major result of stress – burnout – is usually job-related. Whereas most stress is a result of events that have a beginning, middle and end, burnout is a prolonged process that leads to physical, mental and emotional strain.
The Rev. Dennis Kenny, who is also a psychologist, says that when the values we hold in the workplace are no longer being realized, “That’s when we often hit the wall.” To mitigate burnout, one has to restore flexibility and balance in life, says Kenny. One way to do that, he adds, is to get involved with activities that challenge you, where you learn new talents and broaden your horizons.
Stretch Yourself in Toastmasters
Toastmasters provides a more relaxed environment for both the workaholic and the burnout victim, while also offering the opportunity to learn career-enhancing communication and leadership skills. This can improve a person’s currently untenable job situation or provide the additional skills needed to seek a job that’s a better fit.
Being an active member of Toastmasters can also help with heart problems. In 2004, a study presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association showed that men and women who join clubs or other groups that extend their circle of friends, “have significantly lower blood pressure and other heart disease risks.”
In a 2004 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, another study reported on women prone to heart problems. Those women who established large social networks that included club memberships not only had fewer heart-risk factors, the report showed, they also had survival rates double those who did not have such lifestyles.
The connection between group social support and heart health has always been there, says Dr. Tim Gardner at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “It was just a matter of looking for it,” he says. “We need to pay more attention to the behavioral aspects of our health.”
“Our biology likes positive relationships,” adds psychologist Teresa Seeman, Ph.D., Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology who conducts geriatric research at the UCLA School of Medicine.
This is particularly true of the brain. Cognitive skills tend to worsen as people get older, and neurologists have typically believed this process is inevitable and affects all mental functions, from memory and problem-solving to spatial orientation and complex judgments. New research paints a less gloomy picture, however.
Keep the Brain Sharp
According to an article in Consumer Reports, recent studies have raised the prospect that cognitive decline can be minimized by “stimulating, fueling and protecting the brain as it ages.” The challenged brain can generate new circuitry that will help it grow, adapt and sometimes even improve in certain areas, experts maintain. It may also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Membership in Toastmasters helps boost specific cognitive skills. The first involves language, and here Toastmasters excels, not only in improving speaking abilities, but also in adding to a person’s vocabulary and word usage through Word of the Day activities at club meetings. Table Topics improves our mental agility as we tackle the challenge of impromptu speaking.
The second cognitive skill involves learning and memory, both developed through the preparation and presentation of speeches. Learning is aided in two ways, first by researching facts and using them in writing your speech, and second, by becoming more knowledgable from listening to the speeches of others. Memory development comes when you memorize aspects of a speech – or the entire speech itself.
The third boost comes in the area of management skills, when you serve in the administration of the club. The mental benefits include learning how to plan and organize, as well as how to stay flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. In learning how to manage the club, one also learns to manage one’s self.
But don’t think your involvement can be off-and-on if you want to truly improve, says Dr. Robert Friedland of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “What’s important is that you do these activities consistently,” says Friedland, chief of the school’s laboratory of neurogeriatrics. “You won’t get the full benefit by involving yourself only occasionally. You need regular participation.” To stay well and happy, a person must not only receive support from these relationships, but must give support as well.
In his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell looks at the case of a Pennsylvania town, Roseto, where it was discovered in the 1950s that virtually no one under the age of 55 had ever had a heart attack. This was a time when heart attacks were the principal cause of death in men under age 65 and before the advent of cholesterol-lowering drugs and or other aggressive measures to control heart disease. Moreover, researchers found that many of these people ate diets high in fats, smoked heavily and did not engage in much exercise, all among the usual contributors to heart disease, Gladwell notes.
But the researchers also dis- covered that almost all of Roseto’s inhabitants were immigrants from the same area in Italy, or their direct descendants. When it came to well-being, this bond apparently transcended any other health factor, the experts concluded. Up until then, none of the experts had ever thought about health in terms of community.
This same concept carries over into all Toastmasters clubs. Members are of different age and educational levels, and come from different societal, religious, political and ethnic backgrounds. But within the club’s confines, they meet to fulfill a common purpose: to learn communication skills together and enjoy support from each other.
Belonging to Toastmasters makes each member part of an inclusive community. Perhaps, in the same way as the people of Roseto, their continued membership provides them protection to some degree from a variety of health problems. Only time will tell.
Theodore Lustig, DTM, is a member of the Round Rock Chambermasters club in Round Rock, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.