Researchers examined data from two studies of American adults to explore the relationship between exercise and a sense of purpose in life:
- 14,159 participants from the Health & Retirement Study, average age 68 years; and
- 4,041 participants from National Survey of Midlife Development in the US, average age 56 years.
The study showed that older adults who reported a strong sense of purpose also reported higher levels of physical activity over 4 years. The results also indicated that self-reported higher levels of exercise predicted a strong sense of purpose in life across 4 years.
Prior research shows that active individuals enjoy better mental health, decreased risk of disease, and longer lives than sedentary folks. Other studies indicate that people with a strong sense of purpose, described as goals that give life direction and meaning, also possess stronger mental health, lower risk of disease, and increased longevity than people who lack a sense of purpose.
Commitment to exercise can be difficult for some people. Research reveals two strategies that can help are action planning (making a plan about where, when, and with whom to exercise) and coping planning (making a plan to overcome the barriers to your exercise goal). People with a strong sense of purpose may be more proficient at these kinds of planning strategies.
Another recent study shows how important exercise is to brain development in children. Researchers examined exercise and fMRI brain scan data from 5,955 kids, ages 9 and 10 years (49% male and 51% female). They studied the connectome, the brain’s network of brain cells, while at rest. The assessment of this brain architecture showed that more active children enjoyed greater network efficiency, connectivity, robustness, and stability. These brain benefits are important to learning, response to cognitive demands, and brain flexibility. Thus, researchers believe that physical activity during this age may improve cognitive performance.
Takeaway: Exercise improves brain development in kids and a sense of purpose in life in adults. Exercise lowers the risk of disease, improves mental health, and increases longevity. We should support individual efforts to be active, as well as policies that promote exercise in people of all ages.
Ayse Yemiscigil and Ivo Vlaev, The Bidirectional Relationship Between Sense of Purpose in Life and Physical Activity: A Longitudinal Study, J. Behav. Med., Apr. 23, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-021-00220-2.
Skylar J. Brooks, Sean M. Parks, and Catherine Stamoulis, Widespread Positive Direct and Indirect Effects of Regular Physical Activity on the Developing Functional Connectome in Early Adolescence, Cerebral Cortex, 2021;, bhab126, https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhab126