Tue, Apr 28, 2009 - Page 16 News List

Say two prayers and call me in the morning

According to researchers in the new field of neurotheology, spiritual practices can change a person’s brain in ways that enhance physical health

By Diane Cameron  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ALBANY

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You want to live long and look good, so you do everything the experts suggest: You eat salmon, wear sunscreen, lift weights and jog. You floss, eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day; take your Vitamin D and you pray.

Pray?

Yes, God is now part of a healthy lifestyle.

It turns out that God can save your life as well as your soul. According to the newest research on aging and health, we need to hit both the treadmill and our knees on a regular basis. This new push for God isn’t coming, as you might expect, from the church folks, but rather from doctors, specifically neurologists.

The timing is perfect because we are a

pretty nervous bunch right now. The world is tilting, economy struggling and our fears about it are multiplying.

Andrew Newberg is the spokesman for the new field of neurotheology and his focus, How God Changes Your Brain, is also the title of his new book.

In it, Newberg and co-author Mark Robert Waldman delineate extensive research showing the impact of prayer, faith, meditation and, yes, exercise on longevity and health.

In a key section of the book they rank the ways that we can improve our brain function — the overall key to long life. While aerobic exercise is number three, it turns out that the very best thing you can do for your brain is to have faith.

I know, you hear this and you think, “Oh, the religious nuts again.” But no. These guys are not pushing any religion or dogma. When asked if God isn’t just a placebo, Newberg points out, “Placebos cure, on average, 30 percent of most physical and emotional illnesses. But you have to believe in the placebo.”

Belief is his point.

Can’t you just hear this at the gym: “What’s your workout?” “Oh, I do 20 minutes on the elliptical, 20 minutes of weights and a couple of rosaries.”

Newberg and Waldman know you are laughing but they included an extensive appendix, which lays out all the research. God knows, it’s for real.

But this begs the question of where and how. Should we go to church? Organized religion is suffering; churches and synagogues in the US have severely diminishing congregations where the average age is in the high 60s. And there are the scandals and problems and politics. Organized religion is broken; it’s a human institution. Someone once compared the Church to Noah’s ark saying, “If it weren’t for the storm without, you could never stand the smell within.”

But there is something else. The selling of belief as self-improvement strikes me as another kind of materialism, albeit a spiritual one. We typically recognize consumerism in the race to bigger houses, cooler cars or the latest techno-gadget. But maybe in a recession we drop those in favor of other kinds of consumption, like using God for your own good. In most faith systems, the goal or end point is about turning away from self and toward others: Love your neighbor. Mend the world.

There is a paradox here: Trying to be more spiritual for selfish ends knocks you right off the spiritual path. It’s like humility; just when you think you’ve got it, you don’t. But maybe God doesn’t care; maybe he’s OK with being the bait to catch himself.

We don’t have to throw the baby out with the holy water. Now, with this new proof in the existence of belief-brain fitness, we don’t have to choose between the church and the gym.

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