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Religious institutions and spiritual leaders influence health behavior

This is an excerpt from Applied Health Fitness Psychology by Mark Anshel.

Religious Community and Health Habits

Levin (2001) concluded from his review of the religion and health literature that “nearly every religion espouses beliefs that govern behavior regarding health, disease, and death [and] some religions require behaviors related to health while others forbid behaviors related to health or medical care” (p. 22). Religions, for example, promote beliefs that regulate behaviors related to alcohol, tobacco, diet, general hygiene, and medical care. Levin found that commitment to religion “may have a protective effect against subsequent illness . . . prevent or delay (illnesses), and have long-term benefits for physical and mental functioning and health” (p. 23).

The religious community is not immune from the health-related problems derived from an unhealthy lifestyle, however. The obesity epidemic still thrives in the religious and spiritual community (Cline and Ferraro, 2006). For example, the prevalence of obesity increased from 24% to 30% from 1986 to 1994 and likely has become much higher in more recent years among people of faith, that is, people who claim an affiliation with or membership in a denomination or religious institution. One potentially powerful source of health behavior change that has not been recognized in the war against obesity is the importance of religious and spiritual institutions and their leaders.

Next to physicians or other personal care providers, religious and spiritual leaders are some of the most credible people who influence the thoughts, emotions, and actions of a person of faith. People of faith often make a conscious decision to behave in a manner that is consistent with the expectations of their religious or spiritual messages.

In his book, Medicine, Religion, and Health: Where Science and Spirituality Meet (2008), Dr. Harold G. Koenig, MD, divides the benefits of religious practice or belief into six health-related areas:

1. Mental health

2. Immune function

3. Cardiovascular function

4. Stress and behavior-related diseases

5. Mortality

6. Physical disability

Based on his review of the research literature in each of these areas, Koenig (2008) concluded that religious practice or spirituality were strongly associated with superior health outcomes. He found, for example, that blood pressure and rates of stroke and cognitive impairment were each highly correlated with religious involvement (e.g., service attendance, frequency of prayer, strength of belief in a higher power). Although not always acknowledged by religious leaders, messages related to maintaining healthy habits are common throughout most religious texts.

To people of faith, arguably no one has more credibility for influencing behavior than their religious or spiritual leader. Should these leaders play a role in promoting healthy habits among congregants and the community at large? How can they address the apparent disconnect between people's religious practices, including a firm belief in religious or spiritual texts, and their lack of self-awareness about practicing healthy habits? And how can health professionals be involved in this process?

Role of Religious Leaders in Promoting and Modeling Healthy Habits

Many religious leaders contend that people who attend traditional ceremonies or services are looking for spiritual fulfillment, and that is the primary role of their institutions. Educating congregants about healthy habits is not. Perhaps this view, and the mission that propels it, needs to be reexamined. All sources of behavioral influence, including school systems, governments, corporations, the food industry, and religious institutions, need to be unified in providing information and incentives to replace self-destructive behavior patterns with healthier alternatives. One source of health behavior interventions that has received only minimal attention is the role of religious and spiritual leaders.

What should religious and spiritual leaders do to promote healthy habits, perhaps with assistance from health professionals? First, they need to look at themselves and determine if the change needs to start with them. Next, they must speak up and encourage their institution members—and other members of the community, when given the opportunity—to have discipline in all areas of their lives. One religious text, the Bible, addresses eating, indulgence, self-control, self-discipline, and gluttony. These topics need to be addressed in religious institutions and services without fear of offending attendees. Leaders of congregants who attend spiritual events and services should encourage their congregants to make lifestyle changes that will ultimately bring glory to God or some other higher power to whom they feel accountable. Religious leaders must stop being intimidated by the risk of losing members by offending them in order to acknowledge the importance of self-care as an inherent component of a religious and spiritual lifestyle (Colbert, 2002).

Perhaps the most serious obstacle to health behavior change in the religious community is persuading people of faith to take responsibility for their health and engage in the free will of healthy lifestyle choices, rather than surrender control to a higher power. Most religious texts, including the Bible, promote taking responsibility for health behavior. Philippians 2:13 states that God works within us to will his Holy Spirit and the free will to desire to create balance in our life—and the will to act on that desire.

For example, as Omartian (1996) contends, “The main reason to exercise is for your health. Without good health you cannot do all that the Lord has for you do to and you cannot be all the Lord wants you to be” (p. 117). Along these lines, Koenig (1999) asserts, “The world's religions encourage healthy living. . . .
All established religions discourage . . . any habit or activity harmful to the human body, which has traditionally been viewed as sacred, created in the image of God” (p. 72). And as Levin (2001) concludes, “All religions endorse the idea that we ought to take care of our bodies and not act in ways that are reckless and endanger our health” (p. 41).

There is an apparent need for religious institutions and their leaders to play a more prominent role in promoting community health and wellness and to serve as role models for their congregations. The credibility of pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders will be further enhanced if their messages of health and wellness given in their sermons and programs are reflected in their own behavioral patterns. In other words, religious and spiritual leaders have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Health Themes Addressed by Religious and Spiritual Leaders

Perhaps the strongest influence of a religious leader on the thoughts, emotions, and actions of attendees of religious services occurs when their attention is focused on the leader's words—the sermon. Health-related themes that extol the virtues of maintaining a healthy lifestyle need to be communicated more frequently and passionately, citing religious or spiritual text to reinforce main issues. For example, in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the apostle Paul reminds his readers that their bodies are a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, thereby bridging the gap between spiritual and physical dualism that may be keeping people of faith locked into unhealthy behavioral patterns. Paul contends that what we do with our bodies matters not only on a physical level but also on a spiritual level.

Religious leaders can also cite scripture to remind us that we are not owners but rather managers, or stewards, of our bodies. Maintaining healthy habits is a matter of personal stewardship. When we begin to perceive our bodies in a manner that is consistent with God's view, we begin to make decisions that affect our physical health that honors a higher power (i.e., God). Thus, maintaining unhealthy habits that lead to obesity and poor physical conditioning is a failure of that stewardship responsibility.

Another health theme found in religion is gluttony. The Gluttony in Religion highlight box lists examples of this theme from various religious texts that both religious leaders and health professionals may use with people of faith to address the association between healthy habits and spirituality or religion.

Learn more about Applied Health Fitness Psychology.

More Excerpts From Applied Health Fitness Psychology