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Spirituality, health linked for some

April 23, 2007|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

At first it was just about spiritual well-being, said Lisa Strong, 40, of Sharpsburg, who joined Salem United Methodist Church of Keedysville in 2001.

Strong, coordinator of volunteers and administration for the church, said she's noticed that her church has began to put more focus on physical health. The topic frequently arises at Bible studies, and there's talk of forming a dieting group, she said.

Strong said she realizes that her spiritual well-being is linked to her physical well-being.

"I know personally for myself that I have made several changes and I'm more aware," Strong said. "I am exercising more, and I'm eating better. You have a more positive outlook on life."

Over the past two decades, more people have begun to think of spirituality as Strong does, seeking religion for both spiritual growth and physical well-being, local spiritual leaders say.

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"We believe the church is key to the community," said Helen Smith, pastor of Benevola United Methodist Church in Boonsboro. "We think of our spiritual health as needing to include our physical health and our mental health."

Benevola hosted a health fair at the church and offers pickup basketball Wednesday nights in its multipurpose room. The church also has offered medical screenings and a program called Fit Kids for Christ, Smith said.

Of course, physical well-being is part of many religions.

For centuries, eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, have involved meditation and yoga and have underlying themes of making sure the "body is in tune with the mind," said Angelo Bucchino, a retired Frostburg State University professor who taught the philosophy of religion.

Health ministries are now part of Christian churches nationwide.

In the early '80s, a Lutheran minister from Illinois founded what is known as the parish nursing movement, in which trained nurses are installed to tend to a congregation's health needs. Health topics commonly addressed by parish nurses range from heart disease and diabetes to eating disorders and abuse, according to information provided by Parish Nursing Health Information Resources (www.parishnursing.umaryland.edu), an online resource provided by the Health and Human Services Library, part of University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Retired nurse Susann Snyder, 60, serves as a parish nurse at her church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Greencastle, Pa. While parish nurses at Snyder's church don't provide medical treatment, she said they do loan out medical equipment to members of the congregation. They also provide pamphlets and newsletters on health-related topics.

Snyder said acting as an additional health resource helps members of her church with overall spiritual growth.

"It gives them a sense of peace," Snyder said. "If you're a spiritual person and you believe in God and you're ill, it makes you feel as though you're not alone."

Researchers at the Duke Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health - based at Duke University's Center for Aging in Durham, N.C. - examine the role of faith communities in forming the health of the broader communities, and other aspects of health and religion.

A recent Duke study, published in the April 2007 edition of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, found that among depressed patients older than 50, the level of depression was associated with lower religious attendance, less prayer and less scripture reading. Those with greater levels of depression were less involved religiously.

The study involved 1,000 patients at Duke University Medical center and three other hospitals.

Other Duke studies have investigated religion's effect on other illnesses such as sickle cell and heart-related illnesses.

One such study in 2005 compared the clinical outcomes of patients who were being prayed for against patients who were not being prayed for and found there was no significant difference in their clinical outcomes. Roughly 700 patients were involved in that study.

Pastor Malcolm Stranathan of Salem United Methodist Church said his church doesn't have many programs specifically targeted at promoting health, but he often reminds churchgoers that many traditional aspects of religion, such as the Sabbath, do address physical well-being.

"It's no accident that there is a Sabbath," Stranathan said. "It was designed as a gift, a gift we don't often use. We weren't designed to work 24-7.

"Some people see it as an opportunity for rest - not just sleeping, but more like a renewal, a day to mow the lawn, do some yardwork or go shopping. Others look at it like this: 'I can do anything for six days, but I know I have at least one day to rest.'"

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