Our exercise habits may influence our sense of purpose in life and our sense of purpose may affect how much we exercise, according to an interesting new study of the reciprocal effects of feeling your life has meaning and being often in motion. The study, which involved more than 18,000 middle-aged and older men and women, found that those with the most stalwart sense of purpose at the start were the most likely to become active over time, and vice versa.
The findings underscore how braided the relationship between physical activity and psychological well-being can be, and how the effects often run both ways.
Science already offers plenty of evidence that being active bolsters our mental, as well as physical, health. Study after study shows that men and women who exercise are less likely than the sedentary to develop depression or anxiety. Additional research indicates that the reverse can be true, and people who feel depressed or anxious tend not to work out.
But most of these studies examined connections between exercise and negative moods. Fewer have delved into positive emotions and their links with physical activity, and fewer still have looked at the role of a strong sense of purpose and how it might influence whether we move, and the other way around.
This omission puzzled Ayse Yemiscigil, a postdoctoral research fellow with the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, who studies well-being. “A sense of purpose is the feeling that you get from having goals and plans that give direction and meaning to life,” she says. “It is about being engaged with life in productive ways.”
This definition of purpose struck her as overlapping in resonant ways with many people’s motivations for exercise, she says. “Active people often talk about how exercise gives structure and meaning to their lives,” she says. “It provides goals and achievements.”
In that case, she thought, physical activity plausibly could contribute to a sense of purpose and, likewise, a sense of purpose might influence how likely we are to exercise.
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