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Scientific Research Meets Spiritual Pursuits in Pilgrimage Study

Pilgrimage StudyWho says that science cannot mix with the spiritual? Prof. Harris is planning to study the physiological effects of a 30-day pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on a team of William and Mary students.

The project is a collaboration between the professor and his student, senior Michelle Wolf, who has won the support of the Borgenicht Program for Aging Studies and Exercise Science, which helped the team obtain devices such as heart-rate monitors and pedometers that were needed to get the project going. Funding also has been offered by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Summer Research Fellowship and the American Physiological Society Summer Research Fellowship. The study was possible only with the assistance of George Greenia, professor of modern languages and literatures, who organized the pilgrimage for students.

The project's main focus is the relationship between changes in cardiovascular disease risk factors and C-reactive protein (CRP) in people who have completed a 500-mile, 30-day pilgrimage. As Harris explains, elevated levels of CRP are an early marker of cardiovascular disease risk and a sign of possible inflammation, identifiable by a blood-sample analysis.

As Harris explains, the pilgrimage sounds at first like a low-intensity activity, and there is not much information in the medical literature about it except for problems with heat stress, heat stroke and the spread of communicable diseases.

"I did some calculations in terms of energy expenditure. How much energy do you expend walking five to six hours a day under those conditions? It turned out that there's about an extra 2,500 calories a day, so we're talking about doubling your energy needs for each day. That's roughly equivalent to running a marathon every day for an entire month in terms of the amount of energy used," Harris says.

Wolf's main logistical problem during her independent study had to do with collection of the data-obtaining approvals to do studies on human subjects, making arrangements for the pre- and post-pilgrimage blood work both in the United States and in Spain and also getting an estimation of the participants' cardiovascular fitness and body composition.

However, her biggest contribution to the project is going on the trip herself. She will be able to download the data from the heart-rate monitors to her laptop computer, and she actually needs to do that frequently because the monitors will hold only so much data in the memory, depending on the interval between collections of the data.

Once the students come back, all the data will be analyzed and used to form useful conclusions regarding the pilgrimage as a physical challenge.

"Hopefully, that will lead to a bigger study in the future, possibly with some older subjects, because part of the program is to study aging. We intend to collect data on exactly how physiologically stressful a pilgrimage is, and that applies not only to the people who want to go on pilgrimages in the future but also to people with cardiovascular disease factors looking for ways to control them," Harris says.