How Exercise May Help Us Flourish

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Then, Dr. Yemiscigil and Dr. Vlaev drew records for 14,159 of the participants. To enlarge and enrich their sample, they also gathered comparable data for another 4,041 men and women enrolled in a different study that asked similar questions about people’s physical activities and sense of purpose.

Finally, they collated and compared the results, determining, first, how much and how vigorously people moved, and also how strong their sense of purpose seemed to be. The researchers then assessed how those disparate aspects of people’s lives seemed to be related to one another over the years, and they found clear intersections. People who started off with active lives generally showed an increasing sense of purpose over the years, and those whose sense of purpose was sturdier in the beginning were the most physically active years later.

The associations were hardly outsize. Having a firm sense of purpose at one point in people’s lives was linked, later, with the equivalent of taking an extra weekly walk or two. But the associations were consistent and remained statistically significant, even when the researchers controlled for people’s weight, income, education, overall mental health and other factors.

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“It was especially interesting to see these effects in older people,” Dr. Yemiscigil says, “since many older people report a decreasing sense of purpose in their lives, and they also typically have low rates of engagement in physical activity.”

This study was based, though, on people’s subjective estimates of their exercise and purposefulness, which could be unreliable. The findings are also associational, meaning they show links between having a sense of purpose at one point in your life and being active later, or vice versa, so do not prove one causes the other.

But Dr. Yemiscigil believes the associations are sturdy and rational. “People often report more self-efficacy” after they take up exercise, she says, which might prompt them to feel capable of setting new goals and developing a new or augmented purpose in life. And from the other side, “when you have goals and a sense of purpose, you probably want to be healthy and live long enough to fulfill them.” So, cue exercise, she says.

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