July 1, 2016

Religion and Health

Does it make a difference?

Peter N. Landless

We hear much about rest and healthful living. We Seventh-day Adventists emphasize Sabbath rest. Does religion affect our health, or is it just the lifestyle practice that makes the difference?

Religious practices influence health outcomes. Much has been written in the health science and sociological literature about spirituality and health. Spirituality is difficult to measure, and religiosity may then be used as the indicator of spirituality. Religiosity may be characterized by taking religious rest days (e.g., the Sabbath), or following dietary and even dress rules and requirements.

For us to be rested and productive we need both a weekly and an annual rest. In Britain during World War I increased productivity was attempted by continuous, nonstop work schedules. It was later recognized, however, that by reducing the workweek to 48 hours and requiring one day of rest per week, productivity increased by 15 percent. During World War II Winston Churchill announced, “If we are to win this war it will be by staying power. For this reason we must have one holiday per week and one week holiday per year.” That was voted into law!

We humans have limitations. We cannot work without regular times of rest and still maintain a wholistically healthy, happy, and productive life. We need daily rest, weekly rest, and annual breaks in order to enjoy optimal physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

Seventh-day Adventists often attribute the “Adventist health advantage” to the dietary influence of a balanced vegetarian diet and our abstaining from the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other harmful substances. These are indeed beneficial health practices. It is interesting to note, however, that the Adventist Religion and Health Study (ARHS), a sub-study of the current and ongoing Adventist Health Study 2 (AHS2), has shown that Sabbathkeeping is associated with better mental and physical quality of life. Data analysis shows that Adventists enrolled in the study who engaged in secular activities on Sabbath had poorer reported physical health. Additionally, those who said that keeping the Sabbath relieved tensions and promoted feelings of calm and peace also reported better mental health.

Recently, a robust study (74,534 subjects)1 was published showing a period of 16 years of follow-up during which women who attended regular church services had significant protection against death from all causes (all-cause mortality), compared to those who never attended. Those who attended more than once per week had the highest benefit. Results were consistent across different race and ethnicity groups. The influence on cardiovascular and cancer deaths was especially remarkable. Religion most certainly affects health outcomes!

Years ago the Adventist Church was blessed with the following instruction: “Faith in God’s love and overruling providence lightens the burdens of anxiety and care. It fills the heart with joy and contentment in the highest or the lowliest lot. Religion tends directly to promote health, to lengthen life, and to heighten our enjoyment of all its blessings.”2

Besides Sabbath services, it appears compelling to attend and support the regular prayer meeting. It may even make the difference between life and death!

  1. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Intern Med. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.1615. Published online May 16, 2016.
  2. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890), p. 600.

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.