Unwrapping the Myth of Healthy Adventists
A young adult’s perspective
Featured in National Geographic, Newsweek, Blue Zones, and the recent film The Adventists, the Adventist lifestyle is one in which Adventist Church members take great pride. What most Adventists don’t realize, however, is that the very research that put the church into these publications has little to do with some individuals’ lifestyles.
Many Adventists quote the statistic that states our church members live four to 10 years longer than the national average. This is pretty common knowledge among our members and is used in witnessing endeavors such as cooking classes and health lectures.
This statistic originally came from a study conducted from 1974 to 1988 known as the Adventist Health Study (AHS). According to the AHS Web site, every California Adventist household received a survey that only adults over age 25 were to answer. This means that the youngest subjects, being 25 at the time of the study, would now be in their 60s. The data was comprehensive of all Adventist households, which would place the average age above 25, meaning many of these subjects are no longer alive today.
Where Do Young Adults Fit?
So here’s the question Southern Adventist University students are asking: Where does their generation fit into this equation? What they’re finding is that they don’t fit. With obesity on a killing streak across the United States, many young people have fallen prey to this crisis, not excluding Adventist young people.
In their accreditation process the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) requires each school to choose an area that needs work on its campus and then create a plan to address that issue. Southern has chosen physical activity as its quality enhancement plan (QEP).
“The QEP was chosen as a result of a broad-based process that included campus discussions in both the University Assembly and University Senate,” Volker Henning, associate vice president of Academic Administration at Southern, stated. “At a meeting more than a year ago, the theme of physical fitness/activity was selected.”
Henning added that a QEP committee narrowed down the ideas to focus exclusively on activity. The title of this project is now “Living in Balance: Physical Activity.”
Judy Sloan, professor in Southern’s School of Physical Education, Health, and Wellness, was selected as the director of the QEP project and committee.
“Adventists have been in the news about their health and longevity,” Sloan said. “We’re not going to stay there. You know what’s going to happen next? Another 20 to 30 years from now we’re going to be in the news again, only this time it’s going to be ‘What happened to the Adventists?’ ”
What Do the Data Show?
Sloan has been collecting data from Southern students throughout the past eight years, with a total of 3,473 students surveyed. Compared to the national average, Southern students are unexpectedly behind when it comes to activity.
In 2010 the American College Health Association published the results of the National College Health Assessment. This data showed that 19.2 percent of college students in the nation were exercising the recommended number of five times a week. In comparison, Sloan’s data showed that only 16 percent of Southern students were exercising this number of times.
Sloan’s data also revealed Southern students’ top three goals for improving their health: number one was more exercise. Students then rated themselves on how they perceived their own overall health. The data indicated that 60.1 percent of national college students rated themselves as having excellent or very good overall health, while just 39 percent of Southern students rated themselves in this bracket—students who supposedly are going to live 10 years longer than the rest of the population.
A second Adventist health study is in process, with participants who enrolled between 2001 and 2007. The study is made up of 96,000 Adventists between the ages of 30 and 112 living in the U.S. and Canada. This study focuses on diet and cancer in correlation to an Adventist lifestyle. The Web site describes the preliminary findings: “Additionally, levels of cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, and the metabolic syndrome all had the same trend—the closer you are to being a vegetarian, the lower the health risk in these areas.”
While it is a positive sign that there is now substantial data to prove the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle, what is especially disconcerting is that only 8 percent of those surveyed were vegan, and only 28 percent were lacto-ovo vegetarian, eating dairy but no meat. The rest of those surveyed included some meat in their diet.
Reversing the Trend
This data, together with Ellen White’s multiple writings on health guidelines, provide Adventists with proof of what constitutes a healthful lifestyle and contributes to longevity. Unfortunately it appears that there is an attitude of indifference among nonvegetarian Adventists and a lack of physical activity on the part of today’s youth. Southern faculty are seriously concerned and are wondering what will become of the next Adventist generation as they note this indifference and the declining interest in health and fitness.
Phil Garver, dean of the School of Physical Education, Health, and Wellness, summed up what he views to be the root cause of the lifestyle contrast between today’s generation and those involved in the 1974 AHS:
“One simple word—choices,” Garver said. “They’re choosing to be more stressed, to work longer hours, to have more shallow relationships. The only reason He [Jesus] died was to give us freedom of choice. Today the choices we are making are not as good as what our grandparents made. The choice we’ve made for all these conveniences is a curse, and the curse is going to get us.”
Jacob Martin, a Southern graduate and former lab technician in the Hulsey Wellness Center, believes many things need to happen in order to reverse the decline in activity and wellness.
“Knowledge is huge,” Martin said. “It starts when you’re young—if you can get kids when they’re young and instill in them the importance of being active, then it’s easier to develop [that mind-set] when they’re older. It’s hard when you get to this level and they haven’t had the mentality of it growing up. Super hard.”
Martin said that the most important aspect of successfully reversing the decline in activity and fitness is “getting people [at a] younger [age]; giving them the knowledge and the opportunity. It’s one thing to say you need to go exercise, because a lot of people don’t know what that means.”
Staff members are looking at options to implement as part of the QEP, such as redesigning fitness plans and possibly adding more fitness classes to students’ course requirements. This, they say, would provide them with the knowledge and opportunity to redefine the Adventist lifestyle.
Garver believes that God has given Southern the opportunity to directly change the negative course of Adventist young people’s health. Regarding the obstacles of implementing these changes and the staff who are not onboard with the idea, Garver says, “God opens doors, but we have to walk through them. I believe God has given us an opportunity to be a shining light to the world with this institution. God put everything in place. He gave us the facility. Before that He gave us the personnel.
“You do the right things for the right reasons, and God will bless you.”