The University Record, November 16, 1998

Religious teens are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

American teen-agers who regularly attend religious services and believe that religion is important are more likely to lead healthier lives than their non-religious peers, say U-M researchers.

“Religious youth are less likely to engage in behaviors that compromise their health and are more likely to behave in ways that enhance their health,” says John M. Wallace, assistant professor of social work.

In a new study published in the journal Health Education & Behavior, Wallace and colleague Tyrone A. Forman asked 5,000 American high school seniors about their religious participation and beliefs, and about high-risk and healthy behaviors.

They found that highly religious teens—about one-third of those surveyed who said that religion is very important and that they attend religious services weekly—are less likely to drink and drive, use tobacco or marijuana, carry a weapon or get into fights. These teens also are more likely to wear seat belts, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get adequate sleep.

According to Wallace and Forman, little research exists on the link between religion and the health of youth. This apparent lack of interest by other researchers, they say, is surprising given the growing amount of research on religion and health among adults, and the fact that many causes of adult sickness and death are the result of behavior patterns learned in adolescence.

“Where this research does exist, it typically conceptualizes religion as a ‘social control’ against so-called delinquent or deviant behavior,” Wallace says. “Religion does not simply constrain behavior, it also encourages or promotes adolescents’ involvement in behavior that can protect or enhance their health.”

Even after controlling for a variety of social and demographic factors (such as race, gender, family structure, parents’ education, urbanicity and region of residence), the findings show that religion continues to relate significantly to youth behavior.

“The fact that churches, synagogues and mosques have regular access to adolescents, their families and their peers, suggests that religious institutions are a potentially important, albeit often ignored, ally in the nation’s efforts to promote the health of the youth of today and the adults of tomorrow,” Wallace says. “As public health, social work, medicine and other helping professions seek to better meet the needs of young people, they should begin to explore beyond their traditional boundaries and pursue the untapped potential that lies in partnerships with religious professionals and religious institutions.”

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