Newswise — As a group, older women lead the ranks of too-sedentary Americans, but a new study suggests that those who are religious are also more observant about keeping active in old age.

Older women who attend religious services frequently are more likely to participate in leisure-time physical activity, according to the study from researcher R. Frank Gillum, M.D., a physician with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

That association between physical activity and devotion did not hold true for older religious men or religious younger adults, the study said.

The study, which analyzed data for 11,820 people from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, appears in the February issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. It is the first national examination of the link between religiousness and physical activity, Gillum said.

The analysis did not explore what makes older religious women more active. But Gillum said his work uncovers some interesting possibilities, considering that social scientists know that older women — age 60 and upward — are the most religious group in the United States, and health experts say older women are among the least active American adults.

"If the older women are more internally committed to religion, maybe they consider more what their religion says about physical activity," Gillum said.

Religious beliefs like "the body is the temple of the spirit" may encourage older women to adopt health-promoting behaviors — like exercise — that are in line with that value, Gillum suggested.

The findings may also reflect an increase in church-sponsored, health-promotion programs, he said. But obesity and health researcher Karen Hye-cheon Kim, Ph.D., said that trend may not be widespread enough to influence the new study.

"I think there's been a growth of faith-based programs in health in general, but the majority has been targeted at primarily African-American congregations," said Kim, an assistant professor with the College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Gillum's study is drawn from national data, and is therefore a largely Caucasian sample.

The survey, which was conducted by the federal government, asked respondents about their "leisure-time physical activity," which includes exercise as well as other pursuits like gardening or biking for fun. Gillum reports results only for the respondents with no mobility limitations.

Scientists haven't found a universally accepted measure of religiousness, but in Gillum's study, people who reported that they attended services at least one a week were grouped together as one gauge.

Among older women, "infrequent attenders" were about 40 percent more likely to report that they had not participated in any leisure-time activity in the last month. And within every ethnic group of older women, a greater percentage of infrequent attenders said they'd had no leisure-time physical activity compared to the frequent attenders.

Many scientists are skeptical and cautious about promoting links between health and religion, fearing that those associations will alienate non-religious people or cause them to feel they are unable to access health.

But Kim said: "religion is not proposed to be this black box where it magically affects physical activity. There are very concrete links and proposals of why religion affects health. One is social support."

"For those who are not as religious, they can find social support in different avenues," she said. "So that's why I don't think it has to be as threatening as some people conceptualize it to be."

Gillum RF. Frequency of attendance at religious services and leisure-time physical activity in American women and men: the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 31(1), 2006.

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Annals of Behavioral Medicine (Feb-2006)