Individuals who attend weekly religious services may be more likely than less-frequent attenders to improve their health behaviors and to maintain already established good health habits, according to a three-decade-long study.
"Our analyses indicate that attenders did not all start off with such good behaviors," said lead author William J. Strawbridge, PhD, of the Human Population Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. "To some extent, their good health behaviors occurred in conjunction with their attendance."
Several studies have found religious attendance improves one's chance of survival. Those who regularly attend services are known to smoke and drink less, and in general to exhibit better health behaviors. However, the question remaining has been whether religious organizations attract people who already have good health behaviors or if attendance helps create these behaviors.
Strawbridge and colleagues addressed this question by analyzing nearly 30 years of health data on more than 2,600 individuals. "We examined the extent to which religious attendance is associated with both improving poor health behaviors and maintaining good ones already established," said Strawbridge.
"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," said Strawbridge.
The researchers publish their results in the February 2001 issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Certain results were stronger for women than for men. The researchers noted that female frequent attenders tended to be more likely than male frequent attenders to improve poor health behaviors and mental health. "Our results were consistent with known gender differences in associations between religious attendance and survival," Strawbridge noted.
More research is needed on exactly how religious attendance may increase survival, according to the researchers. It may benefit health by offering attendees a sense of coherence or perceived control of their lives or by exposing them to organizational rules that discourage smoking and to philosophical principles that stress respect for the body. The support offered by the religious community may also be a boon to health, according to the study.
"These mechanisms are worth understanding in more detail since they can be applied to other health promotional efforts," said Strawbridge. "Discovering exactly how attendance impacts adoption of good health behaviors can help in the design of strategies to promote the adoption of good health behaviors before illness strikes, and to provide effective self-care treatment when it does."
This study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Annals of Behavioral Medicine is the official peer-reviewed publication of The Society of Behavioral Medicine. For information about the journal, contact Robert Kaplan, PhD, (619) 534-6058.
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