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

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Using social networks to boost motivation and adherence to a diet or exercise program is a time-tested tool among fitness experts, but by tying it to religion, Duru's program connected the new desired activity (physical exercise) to an already-valued activity (scripture-reading and prayer), says Timothy Birdsall, vice president of Integrative Medicine at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

Practicing What You Preach

This isn't the first time that researchers have tried to use faith to motivate churchgoers to be healthy, though programs of this nature are still few and far between.

In a similar effort, researchers at the Medical College of Georgia tested a faith-based weight loss program called "Fit for Body and Soul" last year at a church in Augusta, Ga.

In Augusta, church leaders helped to develop scripture-based "sermons" on weight loss, increased physical activity, and behavioral change. Among overweight and obese black members of the community, they found that the 12-week church-based program resulted in a 5 percent loss of body weight for nearly half of the participants -- a considerable effect that would have positive health consequences.

Body and Soul Changes

While Duru reports that women enjoyed the faith-based Sisters in Motion program, the increased activity didn't translate into weight loss, leading some experts to wonder whether the change in behavior would be enough to lead to health benefits.

"While the differences between the two groups in terms of steps walked per week were statistically significant, the additional level of exercise…is probably not sufficient by itself to generate health benefits such as reduction in blood pressure and weight loss," says Birdsall. A gradual approach to increasing exercise would be ideal for this elderly population, he adds, so if this kind of program could build up to the recommended 60 to 90 minutes of activity per day, that might show stronger benefit and change in disease risk.

Others said those extra miles would produce benefits to cardiovascular health and overall well-being, even if they didn't translate into pounds lost.

"Adding the equivalent of three miles would [be enough to] enhance weight loss, reduce cardiovascular risk, and improve overall well-being," says Dr. Tim Daaleman, the Vice Chair and Associate Professor of Family Medicine at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Michael Dupper, assistant professor of Health, Exercise Science and Leisure Management at the University of Mississippi, says this extra distance would also benefit blood flow, flexibility, and digestion; improve balance; and increase basal metabolic rate among the older women.

Even if the increase in activity wasn't terribly large, "the implementation of an exercise regimen, in itself, represents a significant change in mindset for this particular population," says Dr. Jay Milstein, professor of pediatrics and a member of the Clinical Pastoral Education Advisory Committee at the University of California, Davis Medical Center.

"If this were possible because of the addition of the spiritual element, it would be reasonable to think that this could potentially have other important health benefits because of the enthusiasm that may have been generated."

Duru says he hopes the study, which will be published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society Thursday, will bring funding for future research on this faith-based approach.

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