The God Files

Exercising, Religiously

(Todd Bennett - Getty Images)
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Could weekly religious attendance extend your life nearly as much as regular exercise or statins? That's one way to view some new research by a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center physician, published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. The study jockeys numbers from life expectancy tables and mortality studies to suggest that weekly worship may add two to three years to life. That compares to three to five years for regular exercise and 2.5 to 3.5 years for cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. Study author Daniel Hall, who also happens to be an Episcopal priest, goes on to conduct a cost/benefit analysis. According to his estimate of the costs of tithing, gym membership and statins, while exercise is the best buy, religious attendance trumps statins in terms of years gained per dollar spent.

Not So Fast Tom Denberg, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and a member of the Society of General Internal Medicine, faulted the peer-reviewed study for failing to account for other behaviors that may explain churchgoers' relative longevity. For instance, religious people may be less likely to smoke. That, rather than religion, might extend their lives.

Denberg labeled the study "part of a larger, troubling movement in American society to enhance the scientific credibility of [religious] concepts. . . . Certainly, religious beliefs are valuable to those who hold them," he wrote in an e-mail, "but scientific studies of the potential health benefits of religion need to go beyond the mere reporting of associations."

Next Steps While Hall admits that his religious beliefs might bias him, he maintains that his argument "proceeds solely on secular and scientific grounds." And, he adds, while religion isn't a form of medical therapy, the study -- funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which focuses on the intersection of theology and science -- sheds enough light to -- you guessed it -- warrant further research.

-- Jennifer Huget

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