Well, as they say, that is a deep subject.
I have blogged in the past about the effects of religious practices on health. Fasting is a part of many religious traditions; intermittent fasting has become a “darling” in the weight-loss world. Forgiveness is central to most faith communities, and the positive influence of forgiveness has been proven both in the emotional/psychological realm as well as the physical. Developing a sense of gratitude, also has favorable effects.
Right now, Jews across the world are in the middle of the Ten Days of Repentance. This is the period that begins with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and ends with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement); it is a time of heightened spirituality, self-awareness, and soul-searching. It is followed five days later by Sukkot–a festive harvest holiday, as well as Simchat Torah when the lectionary cycle of the Torah concludes and begins again. It is a very busy time on the Hebrew calendar, and as a rabbi, I cannot help but wonder…is it good for us?
Many studies have shown the positive impact of being involved in a religious community. Religion can offer certain psychologic benefits such as a positive and hopeful attitude about life and illness, which can lead to better health outcomes and a longer life expectancy. Religion can also provide a sense of meaning and purpose, which have been shown to affect health behaviors; it contributes to stronger social and family relationships too, providing stronger networks of care when illness occurs. The National Institutes of Health reports that this is especially important in older adults who often experience a sense of loneliness and social isolation. A study conducted at the Ohio State University concluded that those with religious beliefs may live up to 4 years longer (at the very least) with all other things being equal; factor in gender and marital status, and that number can go as high as 9.45 years!
Of course, the picture is not completely rosy. There are some religious groups that focus on issues such as guilt or that may engage in coercive/controlling behaviors which are detrimental to health. There also some faith communities that eschew modern medical treatments. Be wary of religious groups and experiences that put health at risk.
Overall, however, it appears that having faith and being part of a supportive community can make a positive difference. In fact, research bears out that religion is not only good for the soul, it is good for the body as well!