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How Feeling A Sense Of Purpose Influence's Physical Activity, According To Research

Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer
By Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer
Eliza Sullivan is a food writer and SEO editor at mindbodygreen. She writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She studied journalism at Boston University.
Image by Rob And Julia Campbell / Stocksy
May 20, 2021

There's plenty of good to come of exercising more: Beyond just the physical health benefits, it can contribute to greater happiness, and now evidence suggests that there's a link between working out and finding meaning and purpose in our lives.

The new research, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine by Ayse Yemiscigil, Ph.D., and Ivo Vlaev, D.Phil., earlier this week highlighted a symbiotic link between physical activity and purpose in life—as one improves, so does the other.

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The link between purpose and fitness.

Over the course of a nine-year follow-up, the researchers found two things. Firstly, "people with a greater sense of purpose in life may be more likely to engage in physical activity," write Yemiscigil and Vlaev. "At the same time, physical activity can contribute to a sense of purpose in life." All that to say, those that felt more attached to a purpose were more active, and those that were more active were more likely to feel a sense of purpose.

This connection between a sense of purpose and physical activity, which is termed a "bidirectional relationship" in the paper, was specifically found in samples of middle-aged and older adults. Of course, the positive impacts of physical activity on overall mental well-being are well researched. As referenced by the authors of this study, a 2018 meta-analysis concluded that the evidence of 49 studies supports the fact that physical activity can help to prevent depression in some cases.

However, in this study, it was not happiness or another factor that was considered: It was the simple existence of a sense of purpose—which, like physical activity, can decline with age in some cases. Purpose, for many Americans in particular, can be tied to the roles we exist in during our lives, so it makes some sense that aging and the things that go with it, like retirement, may be tied to a loss of that feeling.

What does this mean for your routine?

"As life expectancy increases, the proportion of older adults in the population is expected to rise," write the authors in the conclusion. "However, later stages of life are marked by a more sedentary lifestyle and tend to show declines in certain aspects of psychological well-being, such as sense of purpose in life."

Given the findings, it's reasonable to say that engaging in increasing either of these things in one's life can positively impact the other—so perhaps, finding a way to engage a little more with each would come naturally. Of course, it's easier to think of ways to ease into increased physical activity—everything from walking to low-impact workouts to yoga flows can be accessible actions to add to your daily routine. But the prospect of identifying purpose might be a good bit more overwhelming.

Luckily, here at mindbodygreen we've long seen the health value of understanding and identifying purpose, so we've spoken to experts about it. Here are some steps to follow for homing in on your purpose (and maybe increasing physical activity along the way):

  1. Identify your core values.
  2. Give yourself permission to be you.
  3. Transmute fear into faith.
  4. Create your ideal vision.
  5. Relax on the journey.
  6. Seek joy.
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Once you start to find things that truly bring you joy and fulfillment, waking up for that morning workout will probably seem less daunting, no?

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Eliza Sullivan
Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer

Eliza Sullivan is an SEO Editor at mindbodygreen, where she writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She received a B.S. in journalism and B.A. in english literature with honors from Boston University, and she has previously written for Boston Magazine, TheTaste.ie, and SUITCASE magazine.