Over the course of a nine-year follow up, the researchers found two things. Firstly, “people with a greater sense of purpose in life may be more likely to engage in physical activity,” write Yemiscigil and Vlaev, “At the same time, physical activity can contribute to a sense of purpose in life.” All that to say, those that felt more attached to a purpose were more active, and those that were more active were more likely to feel a sense of purpose.
This connection between a sense of purpose and physical activity, which is termed a ‘bidirectional relationship’ in the paper, was specifically found in samples of middle-aged and older adults. Of course, the positive impacts of physical activity on overall mental well-being are well researched. As referenced by the authors of this study, a 2018 meta-analysis concluded that the evidence of 49 studies supports the fact that physical activity can be help to prevent depression in some cases.
However in this study, it was not happiness or another factor that was considered: it was the simple existence of a sense of purpose—which, like physical activity, can decline with age in some cases. Purpose, for many Americans in particular, can be tied to the roles we exist in during our lives, so it makes some sense that aging and the things that go with it, like retirement, may be tied to a loss of that feeling.