Can being religious make you healthier?

Religion is the root of many a good debate, but here's something we can all ponder: does being religious actually make us healthier and happier?

Even the most sceptical of agnostics would be hard pushed to argue against something which boosts emotional, physical and social good health. Various reports - from the Gallup-Healthways Index to peer-reviewed journals tell us that those with religious beliefs, habits and practices are happier and healthier than those without.

Let's start with the obvious: many religions forbid, or at least frown upon, harmful and dangerous practices such as drug use, alcohol and sexual activity outside committed relationships. But the suggestion is that the links between religion and health run much deeper. For many people, simply following a religion leads to better, more positive decisions when it comes to lifestyle, diet, activity and general health.

Religion can be a helpful boost when it's time to say "no" to unhealthy, but socially acceptable foods, drink or pastimes. If you're turning down drink, drugs, nicotine or lifestyle decisions because of your religion, people are less likely to try and change your choices. One Gallup poll of North Americans (http://www.gallup.com/poll/145379/Religious-Americans-Lead-Healthier-Lives.aspx) showed that non-religious people were 85% more likely to smoke than those who identified themselves as religious.

Studies have also shown strong links between religious faith and improved recovery from physical illness and injury. It's thought that the strong community support of many religions helps lower stress and anxiety, which can lead to better health and longevity. The link even extends to depression and mental illness, with fewer religious people seeming to suffer from mental ill-health, and those that do recovering more quickly than their non-religious counterparts. This seems to be particularly true for religious people who regularly attend services, rituals or community gatherings based around their religion. Studies have shown that simply attending religious services can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and encourage gratitude, optimism, forgiveness and better emotional wellbeing.

Of course it's difficult to tell whether being religious leads to better health, or whether the type of person likely to be religious is also the type of person naturally inclined to be more moderate, make better choices, be happier and therefore more healthy. One thing seems to be clear: a strong sense of community, support and regular human contact is good for more than just the soul.

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