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New Study Reveals One Major Side Effect of Exercising More

Scientists are learning how exercise doesn't just get you fit. It can bring new meaning to your life.
FACT CHECKED BY Alex Daniel
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Sure, exercise helps your muscles, your brain, and your lifespan. (In some cases, it can even cause harm; for more on the dangerous side effects of exercise, see here.) But according to a new study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, working out more every day can also enhance your feelings of purpose in life, and science shows that living a more purposeful and meaningful life is also a happier and longer one. Read on for more about this new study and what it means for you. And for more on the benefits of exercise, check out why Walking This Way Can Add 20 Years to Your Life, Says Top Scientist.

1

Finding the Link Between Exercise and Purpose

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The study was led by Ayse Yemiscigil, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, and Ivo Vlaev, D.Phil, a professor of behavioral science at the UK's University of Warwick. The researchers first studied data provided by the big (and still going) Health and Retirement Study, where people over 50 report on their daily activities and mental health. Then, the researchers reference another study of more than 4,000 people who answered questions about their physical and mental health, as well as their sense of purpose.

Yemiscigil and Vlaev analyzed the data to figure out how much and how vigorously the people moved throughout their days, along with their feelings of purpose. And for more exercise news you can use, read up on the One Body Part You Never Exercise But Should, Say Experts.

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Exercise Creates a Virtuous Cycle

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The researchers found that exercise is not only linked with stronger feelings of purpose, but it creates a virtuous cycle, as those feelings of purpose then propel people to exercise more. What was especially interesting was how exercising earlier in life was found to be linked with a greater sense of purpose in people's later years—and vice versa.

"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," observed The New York Times, which also noted that those who feel purposeful early in life tend to take an extra walk "or two" every week later in life.

"It was especially interesting to see these effects in older people," Yemiscigil told the NY Times, "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."

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The Benefits of Leading a More Purposeful Life

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Paul Dolan, Ph.D., is perhaps the world's most foremost expert on happiness. In his terrific book Happiness by Design, he defined happiness essentially as the perfect balance between "pleasure and purpose." Having more pleasure in your hard-partying college years may make you happier, but you also have a sense of purpose that you're being educated. Meanwhile, having more purpose in your child-rearing years may make you happier. It's an always-changing mix, he argued, and you need both of them to be happy, wherever the pleasure/purpose pendulum may be swinging.

According to data compiled by the University of Minnesota, having a stronger sense of purpose is linked to a longer life, a lower risk of heart disease, better protection against Alzheimer's disease, and even better pain management.

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How to Find Your Sense of Purpose

happy woman after a workout

"Purpose is belonging to something bigger and greater than ourselves," longevity expert Kien Vuu, MD, once told The Beet.

His advice? Find something in your community where you can find healthy connections and contribute to a cause that is bigger than yourself. "On average, people live seven years longer if they have a deep sense of purpose," said Vuu. "They also had a limited risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack and stroke, which are the number one killer among Americans. If you happen to be hospitalized, if you have a sense of purpose, you actually spend fewer days in the hospital. This really is medicine, and purpose actually has biological effects." And for more reasons to exercise, read about The One Major Side Effect of Going for a Single 1-Hour Walk, Says New Study.

William Mayle
William Mayle is a UK-based writer who specializes in science, health, fitness, and other lifestyle topics. Read more