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Healthiness linked to godliness

But researchers aren’t sure which of the 2 comes first

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People who regularly attend religious services are likelier to pick up and maintain healthy habits compared with less dedicated attendees, a new study shows.

While numerous studies have linked going to such services with improved odds for living longer, it's been uncertain whether congregations attract people who already smoke and drink less and are more physically active, or if attending services somehow helps promote those behaviors.

"We found that attenders did not all start off with such good behaviors. To some extent, their good health behaviors occurred in conjunction with their attendance," said William Strawbridge.

He's a researcher at the Human Population Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., and lead author of the report in the February issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Other studies, including an analysis of past research that was published last summer, indicate that it is public worship — not personal religious involvement — that is most important in predicting mortality.

For the latest study, backed by the National Institute on Aging and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Strawbridge and his colleagues looked at health surveys on more than 2,600 people going back nearly 30 years to track both their health behavior and church attendance over the years.

"Individuals who regularly attended religious services were more likely to become more physically active, quit smoking, become less depressed, increase social relationships and initiate and maintain stable marriages," Strawbridge said.

And, as with other studies, the researchers found that women who frequently attended church or other places of worship were more likely than male congregants to improve their health habits and their mental health.

Other studies have found similar effects. For instance, a 1998 study in Los Angeles found that women who were church members were likelier to get regular breast cancer screening than neighbors who didn't regularly go to church.

Strawbridge said the surveys still don't make it clear just how religious attendance helps increase survival or improve health habits. "But these mechanisms are worth understanding and studying in more detail, since they could help with the design of health promotion strategies."

One experiment several years ago in a group of black North Carolina churches found that a church-based, scripture-backed nutrition education effort had a positive effect on the number of servings of fruits and vegetables members were eating on a daily basis.

"It's a given that in religious organizations, people find new sources of social support that tends to make people healthier," said Michael McCullough, a researcher with the National Institute for Healthcare Research, a Maryland think tank devoted to the study of religion and medicine.

Strawbridge said that attending worship may also offer attendees a sense of coherence or perceived control over their lives. Or, organized religion may expose members to rules that discourage substance abuse and emphasize respect for the body.