Ernesto Vega listens during a Nov. 10, 2016, prayer service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health reported in 2015 that an analysis of more than 1,500 reputable medical studies indicates people who are more religious and pray more have better mental and physical health. CNS photo/Patrick T. Fallon, Reuters
Ernesto Vega listens during a Nov. 10, 2016, prayer service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health reported in 2015 that an analysis of more than 1,500 reputable medical studies indicates people who are more religious and pray more have better mental and physical health. CNS photo/Patrick T. Fallon, Reuters

By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service

Can prayer, faith and belief in God make you healthy -- physically, as well as spiritually and emotionally? Yes, according to dozens of studies over the past 20 years.

In fact, Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health reported in 2015 that an analysis of more than 1,500 reputable medical studies "indicates people who are more religious and pray more have better mental and physical health," according to Dr. Harold G. Koenig, center director and among the country's leading authorities on faith and healing.

Moreover, "of 125 studies that looked at the link between health and regular worship, 85 showed regular churchgoers live longer," Koenig told Newsmax Health. "Studies have shown prayer can prevent people from getting sick -- and when they do get sick, prayer can help them get better faster."

Koenig -- senior author of the "Handbook of Religion and Health" -- said a study published in the Southern Medical Journal demonstrated that prayer sessions for patients with hearing and visual deficiencies led to "significant improvements based on audio and visual tests."

"Devout" religious practice, he added, such as involvement in a faith community, enables people to better cope with stress, experience greater well-being "because they have more hope," and have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure "and probably better cardiovascular functioning."

Koenig further reported that nearly 1,200 studies done on the effects of prayer on health show that religious people tend to live healthier lives -- "less likely to smoke, to drink, to drink and drive."

Separate studies conducted at Duke, Dartmouth and Yale Universities indicated that:

"Hospitalized people who never attended church have an average stay of three times longer than people who attended regularly.

"Heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not participate in a religion.

"Elderly people who never or rarely attended church had a stroke rate double that of people who attended regularly."

A WebMD article reported that research focusing on the power of prayer in healing has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. The article suggested that prayer, because of its repetitive nature in sounds and words, promotes "healing effects," according to Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine and professor at Harvard Medical School.

Among the first Western physicians to bring spirituality and healing into medicine, Benson told WebMD that his studies over the past 30 years indicate that all forms of prayer -- such as the rosary or Buddhist meditation -- "evoke a relaxation response that quells stress, quiets the body and promotes healing."

In March 2015, research published in the Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome found that weekly attendance at a religious service, praying often and reading religious books all appear to prevent recovering substance abusers from relapsing and again using cocaine, heroin, marijuana or alcohol.

"The strongest association between remission and spirituality," the study added, "involves attending religious services weekly," due to its connection to social interaction and bonding -- in other words, a regular and trusted support system.

Clay Routledge, social psychologist and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, writes of numerous studies showing that prayer can improve an individual's emotional and mental state, which can result in better physical health.

Those who pray, he said, are more self-controlled, less aggressive, more forgiving and more likely to offset "the negative health effects of stress," including high blood pressure.

Additionally, said Routledge, recent studies found that "having people pray together with a close friend increased feelings of unity and trust. This finding is interesting because it suggests that praying with others can be an experience that brings people closer together. Social prayer may thus help build close relationships."

At the same time, Routledge acknowledges that there can be risks to relying exclusively or primarily on prayer for good health:

-- Religion can offer people a way to avoid their health issues, as expressed in phrases like, "It is in God's hands." In other words, Routledge said, "they can pass the buck to God," an approach that prevents maintaining and improving health.

-- Religion also can direct people away from conventional medical treatment. This is especially true, Routledge said, of those with a fundamentalist view of religion, based on studies he conducted in which participants were asked if they supported the position to deny medicine and rely on faith alone when dealing with an illness.

"It is worth noting," he added, "that people who are not fundamentalists, but are religious, are more likely to rely on conventional medicine, even if they also rely on prayer. … They use both, and using a combination of medicine and faith is not problematic for health as long as the religious component does not push one away from relying on conventional medicine."

In that light, it is not surprising that a five-year study on patients with congestive heart failure (published in Health Psychology in 2015) showed that those who reported feeling spiritual peace -- and who also made some healthy lifestyle changes -- were significantly more likely to live longer than their peers.

Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.

Divine connection: The positive effects of prayer on health

By Maureen Pratt | Catholic News Service

For people of faith who face health challenges, turning to God in prayer is not unusual. But over the past few decades, medical professionals have focused attention on whether prayer has effects that go beyond spiritual solace to impact physical health.

The Rev. John K. Graham is president and CEO of the Institute for Spirituality and Health at Texas Medical Center in Houston. An Episcopal priest and experienced physician, he is one of a growing number of medical professionals who study the effects of spirituality, including prayer, on health and coping with health challenges such as cancer and chronic illness.

"In 'The Handbook of Religion and Health,' Dr. Harold Koenig (a longtime investigator in the area of mind-body medicine) lists more than 3,000 articles in the medical literature that show a positive correlation between spirituality and health," said Rev. Graham. "It affects every parameter that you can measure: blood pressure, cholesterol level, every chemical measure including stress/cortisol in the body."

People express their spirituality in a variety of ways, but prayer is the most common practice.

Rev. Graham explained, "Prayer is the foundational spiritual practice for almost everyone, even those who say they are not religious. If (the nonreligious) have a child who is ill or they are going into the operating room, they still pray. Sometimes that's called the 'foxhole prayer,' but I wouldn't diminish it. If you're at your desperate end of things, you'll turn to someone greater than yourself."

The effect of prayer can enable the patient to accept a diagnosis, reduce stress and focus energy toward healing -- all important in coping with a health crisis.

"You can't force God to cure someone," said Rev. Graham. "The human condition is not perfect this side of heaven. We have to deal with situations like genetic abnormalities. Some of us are more susceptible to cancer or autoimmune disease. We can die of a car wreck tomorrow.

"Prayer is even more beneficial than just being healed. Your soul, your spirit are touched. You get reconciliation with God. We have a God who loves us, that's what prayer is all about. Getting that connection with God."

That connection can have tangible, physical effects, noted Rev. Graham. "We know that your body is designed to heal a cut, for example. Science has proven that what you think and what you believe will have an effect on your health. Neurotransmitters go out through your whole body and interact to affect your cells in a positive way.

"For example, if you've been diagnosed with cancer, praying will have a positive effect on your immune system. Prayer puts your body in the right position so that it can do its own work."

Intercessory, praiseful, liturgical or even angry prayer can have a benefit, according to Rev. Graham.

"I would rather someone get mad with God if they are diagnosed. It shows they have a relationship with God. It seeks resolution beyond the anger, to a place of acceptance, like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed, 'Let this cup pass from me, but if not, thy will be done.'

"This puts us in balance, body-soul-spirit. It puts our mind at rest. Then we're like an open vessel, reaching up to God and accepting what God has in store for us."

Rev. Graham would like to see more research document the impact of prayer on people and their healing. For now, he said, "even if you pray alone, you respond to God's love pouring down all the time. God's going to hear you."

Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service. Her website is www.maureenpratt.com.

We can unite prayer and exercise, says founder of Christian fitness program

By Nancy Wiechec | Catholic News Service

Prayer and exercise work well together, said the founder of a fitness program combining core strengthening and stretching with Christian prayer and meditation.

"No matter what exercise you do, just begin and end with a prayer," said Catholic mom Karen Barbieri. "Offer that time up to God."

It might be a simple concept, but Barbieri said people don't readily see prayer and exercise going hand in hand.

"We've gotten away from treating the body and soul as one," she said. "But we can unite exercise and prayer exactly because we are body and soul."

Her road to that understanding was born out of back pain she suffered after having her fourth child.

"Doctors were trying all kinds of things," she said. She underwent physical therapy and took medication. A cortisone injection treatment went horribly wrong. Nothing seemed to be helping.

"It was terrible" she recalled. "I was in a chair and hardly could walk."

Someone suggested she try yoga.

Although widely practiced as exercise and for relaxation in the West, yoga is a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline. Barbieri said she had long avoided yoga because she didn't see its philosophy as a match with her Catholic faith.

Yet she needed relief from her pain.

A friend introduced Barbieri to a DVD program by a popular fitness instructor. It utilized yoga movements but not its meditations.

She started the exercise routine, beginning with a prayer and then portions of the DVD. Gradually, she began feeling better and gaining back her strength.

"It literally saved my back," she said.

Along her path to wellness, she prayed for guidance.

"As time went on and I was getting stronger, I just kept feeling this call that we shouldn't have to go to a yoga class to stretch and strengthen. … After a long time of discernment, I decided to create Pietra Fitness."

Pietra means rock in Italian. "It reminds us of the importance of a solid foundation when building anything that is to have strength, stability and longevity," says the Pietra Fitness website.

Each Pietra session has a theme, such as forgiveness, peace, joy or hope. The workouts begin with prayer intentions and a Scripture verse. There are pauses for prayer and reflection during each hourlong program. Classes begin and end with the Sign of the Cross.

The exercises focus mainly on a person's core, which provides a strong foundation for the rest of the body. Christian prayer poses are incorporated, such as bowing with hands together, genuflecting or lying prostrate.

"Our goal -- why we exist -- is to help people develop strength of mind, body and soul, so that we can glorify God with our entire human person," Barbieri said.

Before her back problem, the busy mother said she didn't see the value in taking time to exercise.

"I felt like my job was just to take care of my kids," she said. "In hindsight, I see that you need to take care of yourself so that you can live a balanced life, feel good and be the person God intended you to be."

Additional information on Pietra Fitness can be found at https://pietrafitness.com.

Follow Wiechec on Twitter: @nancywiechec.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Catholics who pray the rosary can kick their devotion up a notch with SoulCore, a contemporary workout that combines physical exercise with the prayers of the rosary.

Pushups done during the Our Father, stretches for the Glory Be and Pilates-based movements during the Hail Marys allow participants to engage "body and soul in prayer while fully orienting the heart and mind toward Christ," says the fitness program's website.

Founders Colleen Scariano and Deanne Miller see SoulCore as a response to the Catechism of the Catholic's Church's call to "pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication" (No. 2703).

Scariano and Miller train leaders who take the program back to their parishes and communities, but the website features a shop where anyone can purchase the DVD workouts.

Participants remarked that they came to a deeper understanding of the rosary, as the exercise begins the mysteries with a Scripture verse and reflection.

This isn't yoga, but rather "a 'Yes' to an inspiration of the Holy Spirit," according to SoulCore's website.

The website gives a nod to St. Ignatius, who said, "Remember that bodily exercise, when it is well ordered … is also a prayer by means of which you can please God."

For more information, see www.soulcore.com.