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Get Fit, Do Good: 7 Active Volunteer Opportunities to Get in Shape

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Functional fitness and volunteer vacations are in the cool club this year. So it was only a matter of time before the two merged. Check out these seven opportunities to exercise while volunteering.

Let’s call it voluntiness. Fitneteering? Maybe not. But the concept of active volunteering makes sense. A gym workout is great for the one person it benefits. But by moving a little of that calorie burning and muscle building into the real world, your sweat could start changing more lives for the better.

active volunteering

And there’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done at home and overseas to tackle income gaps, climate change, budget cuts to open spaces, etc.

Some volunteer jobs fit with functional fitness goals. They combine strength training with coordination, balance, and endurance. They’re also a great way to learn new skills, expand social comfort zones, and even depolarize communities.

So on your marks, pioneers. Start here.

House About This

Tone your calves with some ladder climbs. Hammer up some biceps. Heck, transform a neighborhood while you’re at it. Habitat for Humanity volunteers say it’s hard to express the emotions they feel after building a house and realizing just how much it will change a family’s life.

No particular skills are required of volunteers beyond good work ethic. Time commitments range from a day to a week or more. Chances are good that Habitat for Humanity is building something nearby. But for those with exotic tastes and a couple grand to donate, there are also projects in countries from Zambia to Myanmar.

Big Hoses — and Biceps

Firefighters are obligated to stay in top shape so they can burst into burning buildings (or forests) and make the cut for the yearly calendar. Many departments, especially in rural areas, rely heavily on active volunteering.

active volunteering

True, part of the job time isn’t actually a workout. You’ve got to get along with others and study. But lives depend on your keeping fit, which tends to keep motivations high. Most fire departments require a regular, ongoing time commitment. And be prepared for a fitness test and some schoolwork.

Learn more at firescienceonline.com.

Y-es You Can: Volunteering the YMCA

It is fun to volunteer at the YMCA. The Y is an affordable place to get in shape. But you can take it a step further: Most fitness instructors and coaches there are volunteers. You can make a huge difference in the lives of low-income kids and adults who might not otherwise have access to activities like swimming, karate, yoga, and even skateboarding. Offer up your expertise.

active volunteering

Note for newbies to the Y: The acronym stands for Young Men’s Christian Association, but that’s mostly a hold-over from its founding 174 years ago. Today’s Y welcomes all, from women to atheists. In fact, it’s even evolving to offer private pool hours for Muslim women.

(Similarly, consider teaching a fitness or yoga class at a homeless shelter or prison.)

Serious Trail (Building) Time

Ever wonder how that footbridge got over that stream 7 miles from the trailhead? Some volunteer schlepped it in. Thousands of miles of trails need attention. Physical outdoor jobs range from basic erosion control to building wheelchair-accessible boardwalks.

Just visit a local public lands office (BLM, U.S. Forest Service, national park, or state park). You’ll quickly see there’s a large legacy of trail workers who have been doing this kind of hands-on volunteering for ages. Find more active volunteer opportunities here. The nonprofit American Hiking Society also keeps a list of projects.

Grow Lean

Toss hay. Dig dirt. Yank weeds. Chase chickens. An organic farm is a great place to get in shape. Plus, you get to eat the rewards. Most community farms would love an extra hand, and it’s not too hard to come up with a free-range workout near you.

active volunteering

Just ask around at the farmers’ market. Or try the WWOOF network (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), which links volunteers with farms. In this program, volunteers get free room and board in exchange for helping out half of each day.

Shovel Some Shit

There are many ways to workout while helping animals. Some of them involve at least a little excrement extraction, along with more fun parts. Horse therapy centers help people with emotional trauma and physical disabilities, and horses require a lot of physical upkeep. Also, consider local wildlife rescues and domestic pet shelters.

Dogs displaced by Hurricane Ike are sheltered at the local center set up by the Humane Society. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

For those with flexible schedules, look into the Humane Society animal rescue team. Team members respond to natural disasters, rushing into harm’s way to save Fido and setting up emergency shelters to care for lost furry friends. And membership comes with free online FEMA courses.

Go, Go Global

There are countless pay-to-volunteer-in-exotic-locations programs. They range from painting gorilla sanctuary cages and refurbishing schools to replanting coral reefs and working as a porter to haul supplies to remote villages. You can even restore stone buildings in Europe using 10th-century techniques. That’s a serious deadlift.

Some people call this active travel, others voluntourism. Trips vary widely in cost from a few hundred to upwards of $5,000. To find worthy ones, try REI for trails and habitat, Earthwatch Institute for scientific expeditions and wildlife, or Journey for volunteer trips combined with athletic outside adventures.

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