Achieving perfect health has become a religion in the western world, according to a newly published study. Barbro Wijma, professor emerita and physician with many years of experience meeting patients, views this development with dismay.
Together with Britta Pelters, sociologist at Halmstad University, she has carried out a study of published research to determine whether the health and fitness trend we see today can be considered to be a religion. Their conclusion, supported by sociological theories of religion, is that it can.
“Health is our faith: the healthy body has become a divine entity,” says Barbro Wijma.
5:2 not a psalm
The question was raised in their minds by, among other things, some quotations seen in DN, a national daily newspaper in Sweden, in 2013: “It is hardly necessary to point out that the numbers ‘5:2’ seen everywhere this autumn do not refer to a psalm but a diet”, and: “In the quest for a perfect body, two days’ fasting is the new salvation.”
The sociological theory of religion defines ten criteria that characterise a religion.
“We looked at these criteria, and discovered that all of them can be applied to health.”
The ten criteria that define a religion include “holiness”, moral values, redemption/salvation, symbols, rituals and community.
A religion must contain something that is existentially significant, and the two researchers compare the “holiness” found in the health religion with the definition of health put forward by WHO. This describes health as “a condition of complete physical, mental and social well-being”.
“We cannot achieve such a perfect, divine health,” Barbro Wijma points out.
But people aspire to it and believe in it: it gives them security and an erroneous impression that they can control their life by exercise and healthy living. If the body despite this lets us down, by becoming diseased, for example, this can lead not only to disappointment but also to shame.
“Moralistic values of the health religion may arise if good health is linked to strength of character. Living a healthy life is evidence of a strong character – ‘I live a good life, which leads to happiness.’ Devoting oneself to training, healthy eating, health checks and exercise apps provides salvation and redemption, and creates an illusion that death is not inevitable. The health religion offers protection against this existential threat.”
The gym has become a temple of our age, where the healthy and muscular body is worshipped. Workout clothes of the right quality, the latest model of shoes (matching our clothes, of course), heart-rate monitors, sport drinks and apps are all important symbols. The exercise plan becomes a form of ritual.
Faith and trust are based on the idea that we become more healthy if we exercise and have our health checked regularly. The feeling of community is based on common values and meetings in the temple of training – the gym or other exercise locations. There is also a form of priesthood in the health religion, represented by health gurus, doctors and advisers who “preach” about health, diet and training methods.
Barbro Wijma is careful to point out that striving for a healthy life is positive.
“Living healthy brings many benefits. But just as in all religions, devotion must not become excessive. And one’s own convictions must not lead to any tendency to look down on unbelievers.”
“And this is where the danger lies,” she points out, “a danger that all responsibility for health will be placed on the individual.”
“Ill health depends also on social structures: health is a class-based issue.”
The higher one’s social-economic status, the better one’s health, and vice versa.
“But if health becomes an individual responsibility, the picture obtains a moralistic dimension. If you are unhealthy, it is easy to take the blame for this yourself, and society around you may react by condemnation. Taken to extremes, this would lead to socially disadvantaged people being seen as ‘immoral’.”
Barbro Wijma shows us a poster from the Östergötland County Council from the 1980s, when she was working as a doctor. It’s a list of ten items with the title: “The 10 commandments of better health”. The commandments contain advice such as: “Control your stress level”, “Stay friends within the family” and “A healthy diet is half the battle”.
“We could see the trend towards a religion of health even then. I find it outrageous that a public institution considers that it has the right to publish ‘commandments’ that make it clear that it is the responsibility of the individual to remain healthy. Of course, everyone has a responsibility for his or her own health, but the principal issue lies at a structural level. Not everyone can afford to eat properly; if you are in a violent relationship it may be a bad idea to avoid conflict; stress levels sometimes may be beyond your influence. People do not have full control over the circumstances of their lives.”
“We hope that our study can contribute to a discussion, and not least that those who work in the health and medical care system participate in that discussion.”Photo: Istockphoto