Why Exercise and Mental Health Go Hand-in-Hand

Understanding the relationship between exercise and our sense of self-purpose as we get older is a chicken and egg thing: does regular exercise give us a better sense of purpose or is it the other way around? According to a recent study, it goes both ways! The study, published in the April issue of the Journal of Behavior Medicine, concluded that middle-aged and older men and women with a stronger sense of meaning to their lives were more likely to be active and vice versa. The study of over 18,000 individuals measured the relationship between exercise and positive emotions, rather than that of exercise and negative moods, an area that has been extensively studied previously. 14,159 participants in an ongoing study called the Health and Retirement Study that gathers data on the lives, attitudes, and activities of middle-aged and older individuals were drawn and compared to 4,041 people enrolled in a different, similar study. People who started off with active lives generally showed an increasing sense of purpose over the years, and those who sense of purpose was sturdier in the beginning were the most physically active years later. The study’s authors even postulated that having a firm sense of purpose at some point in one’s life was the equivalent to an extra weekly walk or two later in their lives. These findings were consistent and remained statistically significant even when factors such as weight, income, education, and overall mental health were considered. “It was especially interesting to see these effects in older people”, says Dr. Ayse Yemiscigil, one of the study’s co-authors, “since many older people report a decreasing sense of purpose in their lives, and they typically have low rates of engagement in physical activity.” Despite the findings associating links between having a sense of self purpose at one point in your life and being active later, or vice versa, they do not prove that one directly causes the other. Yet, Dr. Yemiscigil believes the associations to be strong and sensible, saying “people often report more self-efficacy” after taking up exercise and this prompts them to set higher goals, and conversely, “when you have goals and a sense of purpose, you probably want to be healthy and live long enough to fulfill them.”

With so many middle-aged and senior individuals becoming less active as they get older for one reason or another, this study validates the benefits of doing just the opposite. Regular exercise has been scientifically proven time and again to have numerous long-lasting benefits on physical health and well-being, and now it appears to do the same for mental health and well-being. And with Covid-19 causing most of us to be less active and more anxious and stress-ridden, now is the time to get moving.