Ask 100 different people to define “purpose” and you’ll likely get as many different answers as possible. Purpose is often elusive, both in its definition and our personal sense of purpose. Yet there’s a strong connection between purpose, wellbeing, and our healthiest behaviors.
You might think you find purpose first, and then feel motivated to care for yourself, but the most recent research on purpose shows that’s not always the case. There have been some exciting breakthroughs in how movement relates to purpose, how we can foster purpose through physical activity, and the ways that trainers and health and wellness coaches can support our clients far beyond their fitness and health.
Benefits of Purpose in Life on Health and Wellness
Psychologists McKnight and Kashdan describe purpose as a mental process that provides personal meaning and defines one’s life goals (2009). Having a sense of purpose in life has also been tied to greater overall life satisfaction, meaning those with purpose tend to be happier in their lives and feel their lives have more meaning (Cotton Bronk, et al., 2009).
But the benefits don’t stop at satisfaction. Purpose also helps us deal more effectively with stress and boosts mood (Hill, et al., 2018). An analysis of 10 studies with over 136,000 participants worldwide showed that having a purpose in life reduced risk of all-cause mortality, meaning those with purpose lived longer and lowered the risk of cardiovascular events (Cohen, Bavishi, & Rozanski, 2016).
The benefits to health go beyond mood and longevity. Having a sense of purpose also changes our health behaviors. Older adults with a sense of purpose are more likely to eat vegetables, prioritize sleep, and get physical activity regularly. They even floss their teeth more often (Hill, Edmonds, & Hampson, 2019).
But there’s a catch. Research can tell us the benefits of purpose, but science can’t always help in finding one’s purpose. That’s partly because purpose is individual. It represents what is meaningful to each of us and what we’re drawn to serve.
Purpose research is also limited by implying that purpose is just one thing, whereas a person can have multiple ways to find purpose and meaning, and they can continue to evolve over time. Fortunately, science has shown that fitness and wellness can shed light on our search for purpose.
Purpose and Physical Activity
Many of us know the benefits of physical activity. Being physically active benefits our health by preventing or lessening the symptoms of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and hypertension (Warburton, Nicol, & Bredin, 2006). It also supports better mental health, not only in the treatment of severe mental health conditions, but also to boost mental and emotional well-being (Saxena, et al., 2005).
It might seem obvious that those with a sense of purpose are likely to get more physical activity. We can assume it’s because those with purpose will want to take better care of themselves and are more likely to get up and out into the world. Yet a 2021 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine showed that relationship goes both ways. Not only are people with purpose more likely to be physically active, but those who are physically active are more likely to connect with a sense of purpose.
In a study of over 14,000 American adults ranging from age 30 to 84, those with a sense of purpose at the start of the study not only were more physically active, but after 4 years they’d increased their physical activity even more. Additionally, those who were physically active at the start of the study were more likely to have a sense of purpose after 4 years. Both physical activity and purpose continued to grow for the 4,041 participants who followed up 9 years later (Yemiscigil & Vlaev, 2021).
This is big news for the fitness and wellness community. We know we help our clients to be physically stronger, have better physical health, deal with stress more effectively, and boost their mood. Yet this is the first study showing that through physical activity our clients can grow their sense of meaning and purpose.
4 Tips to Connect with Purpose Through Movement
While research is ongoing, here are 5 ways you, and your clients, can explore purpose through movement:
1. Make Movement Meaningful
As coaches and trainers, we often talk to our clients about their goals, but we may not consistently tie their movement practices to what drives them day to day. Human minds are meaning-making machines, and when we connect our daily practices with what we find meaningful we find more fulfillment and life satisfaction (Smith, 2017). Connecting movement practices with deeply held values and beliefs supports the connection with meaning and purpose.
2. Set Non-aesthetic Goals
While many people exercise to benefit their appearance, studies show that focusing on weight and aesthetic goals harms motivation long term. However, those who focus on their life goals, health, stress, emotional well-being, or accomplishment are more consistent and happier with their results (Ingledew & Markland, 2008). With that increased consistently may come the benefits to purpose.
3. Harness Your Strengths
Research in Positive Psychology has clearly shown that when we focus on our personal strengths it benefits our motivation, well-being, social connection, and motivation. To harness strengths through movement, choose activities you like to do, that feel good, or that you feel your good at. Or, if you feel none of these is true for you, you might choose to see how your strengths show up through physical activity. For example, if you think of yourself as a tenacious person but you don’t like exercise, getting yourself to exercise is an expression of your tenacity.
4. Find Social Connections
Purpose in life throughout our lifespan has been closely tied with social connection (Pinquart, 2002). One way we can promote purpose is to choose physical activities we can do with others, or as trainers and coaches we can be the social support for our clients. We can also start social groups and other opportunities for community that drive connection, support, consistency, and purpose.
• Cohen, R., Bavishi, C., & Rozanski, A. (2016). Purpose in life and its relationship to all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events: A meta-analysis. Psychosomatic medicine, 78(2), 122-133.
• Cotton Bronk, K., Hill, P. L., Lapsley, D. K., Talib, T. L., & Finch, H. (2009). Purpose, hope, and life satisfaction in three age groups. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 500-510.
• Hill, P. L., Edmonds, G. W., & Hampson, S. E. (2019). A purposeful lifestyle is a healthful lifestyle: Linking sense of purpose to self-rated health through multiple health behaviors. Journal of health psychology, 24(10), 1392-1400.
• Hill, P. L., Sin, N. L., Turiano, N. A., Burrow, A. L., & Almeida, D. M. (2018). Sense of purpose moderates the associations between daily stressors and daily well-being. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 52(8), 724-729.
• Ingledew, D. K., & Markland, D. (2008). The role of motives in exercise participation. Psychology and health, 23(7), 807-828.
• Lopez, S. J., Pedrotti, J. T., & Snyder, C. R. (2018). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Sage publications.
• McKnight, P. E., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: An integrative, testable theory. Review of general Psychology, 13(3), 242-251.
• Pinquart, M. (2002). Creating and maintaining purpose in life in old age: A meta-analysis. Ageing international, 27(2), 90-114.
• Saxena, S., Van Ommeren, M., Tang, K. C., & Armstrong, T. P. (2005). Mental health benefits of physical activity. Journal of Mental Health, 14(5), 445-451.
• Smith, E. E. (2017). The power of meaning: Finding fulfillment in a world obsessed with happiness. Crown.
• Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Cmaj, 174(6), 801-809.
• Yemiscigil, A., & Vlaev, I. (2021). The bidirectional relationship between sense of purpose in life and physical activity: a longitudinal study. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 44(5), 715-725.