Life Wellbeing Exercise and finding purpose in life: It’s all connected

Exercise and finding purpose in life: It’s all connected

A sense of purpose in life is linked with a longer lifespan. Photo: Getty
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Searching for the meaning of life doesn’t come from just sitting around and thinking about it, especially for older people.

A new and intriguing study found that people who followed a consistent exercise routine – or otherwise engaged in regular physical activity – were cultivating a strong sense of purpose in life.

Turning that around, people who held to a sense of purpose in life were more likely to exercise.

The Harvard study suggests a reciprocal relationship that works powerfully to elevate quality of life and wellbeing.

This is potentially the most important argument for people to get off their bean bags and start moving.

Why this is important?

Older people especially are vulnerable to passively giving up on life because of loneliness, of not mattering (as they once did with a career), and the inevitability of lost competence or confidence.

Apathy sets in and there’s no great point in getting off your backside and out of the house. The bittersweet consolations of the internet don’t help.

It’s more than sad, it’s calamitous.

According to a study from 2015: In the Netherlands, there has been “much debate on the question [of] whether elderly people over 70 who are tired of life and who consider their life to be completed, should have legal options to ask for assisted dying”.

Meanwhile, ageism in the workforce is pushing many people in their 40s, 50s and 60s to think of themselves as finished.

No job, no sense of purpose, next stop (as it goes in the mind) the crematorium.

It doesn’t help that the ‘meaning of life’ has been somewhat taken hostage and given a price tag by wellness gurus.

Consider this: In July last year, when lockdowns and curfews became a real thing, the wellness industry was raking in trillions of dollars, cashing in on “our collective disempowerment, the sense that we are buffeted by … forces beyond our individual control”. That was according to the Australian Financial Review.

At that point, the meaning of life became a joke.

Except it isn’t. It can be yours for the effort it takes to raise your heartbeat.

What was the study?

Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Warwick looked at data from the Health and Retirement Study in the US.

More than 14,000 people aged 50 and older were followed over four years in a range of surveys about their routines, physical and mental health, and sense of purpose in life.

The participants were asked to rank their agreement with statements like, “My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant,” and “I have a good sense of direction and purpose in life”.

Participants who remained active as they aged retained a strong sense of purpose – in fact, it often increased over time.

On the other hand, for many older adults whose sense of purpose declined with age, their level of exercise was seen to drop away as well.

The researchers then looked at 4000 people over a nine-year period – via the National Archive of Computerized Data on Ageing – and found the association between exercise and sense of purpose held true.

As The New York Times noted, the data was self-reported – and potentially unreliable – 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”.

A 2014 study from the University of College London found that a sense of meaning and purpose in life was linked to a longer lifespan.