Prayer and Pumping Iron: Faith-Based Exercise Works for Grandma

VIDEO: U Rochesters Dr. Nancy Bennett says discovering what motivates people is key.
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The Bible is not customarily listed among the great fitness manifestos of our time, but preaching exercise as a form of praise and prayer may be the key to motivating the elderly to stay fit.

In hopes of increasing overall activity levels among 62 elderly black women in a Los Angeles community, researchers leveraged the high religiosity of this demographic in designing a faith-based exercise program. Over the course of eight weeks, subjects attended 45-minute weekly exercise sessions in tandem with 45 minute exercise education lessons incorporating positive reinforcement, Scripture readings, and group prayer.

Four months after the effort finished, researchers measured the women's blood pressure and activity level, measured by steps taken per week. Those receiving the faith-based interventions increased their activity level by 78 percent. Women who were given only the exercise sessions (and lessons with no religious component), increased activity by only 19 percent.

The elderly African Americans in the Los Angeles community studied suffer from a lot of health problems and are particularly difficult to motivate to exercise, says Dr. O. Kenrik Duru, lead author on the study and a doctor at the UCLA Medical Center.

"We were trying to use the strength in the community to help them. Over 90 percent of older African-American adults report praying nearly every day. We thought that if we could leverage the church in exercise interventions, this might be more effective and sustainable," he says.

Though significant weight loss was not noted in the women, those in the intervention group walked an estimated 4 to 5 miles more per week than they had before, and had a drop in resting blood pressure.

My Sister's Keeper – Social, Spiritual Exercise Support

Duru's project, called "Sisters in Motion," was a bit of a "kitchen sink approach," he says. It combined motivational tools known to work -- such as social support and group contests -- with religious themes. Participants were drawn from a Catholic, an African Methodist Episcopalian, and a Seventh Day Adventist church.

"The model of the program was, 'With God's help we can achieve what our minds can conceive.' To improve social support for participants, we emphasize the theme of 'You are your sisters' keeper,' that as a fellow Christian you have a responsibility to help them stay healthy."

This theme was brought out during a discussion of a passage from Ecclesiastes: "Two are better than one….for if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. If two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone?"

The "socialization, belonging…[and] being included and surrounded by positive energy" provided by this kind of sisterhood is one of the reasons this faith-based approach is effective, says Eileen McKeon Pesek, director of Pastoral Care and Education at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.

"Working towards a goal with other people makes it fun and less burdensome," she says. The message to participants: "It matters to us that you are…taking care of the previous gift of life God has given to us."

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