It might be harder to commit to an exercise program or stick to a weight-loss plan if you can’t articulate a reason for wanting to adopt healthier behaviors.
“I watched friends and family members struggle to make healthy changes over and over again,” explains Stephanie Hooker, PhD, MPH, clinical health psychologist and research associate at HealthPartners Institute. “When they started new habits, they would stick to them for a few weeks and then fall back into old habits.”
Those who made lasting changes had something in common: A sense of purpose.
THE POWER OF PURPOSE
Research shows that having a sense of purpose, which includes a defined set of goals and a strong desire to engage in behaviors that lead to a happier and healthier life, is associated with positive health outcomes ranging from a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease to improved cognitive function. Making healthier choices also takes less effort for those who express a strong sense of meaning in their lives.
In her latest research, Hooker found those who had a sense of purpose were more apt to engage in physical activity and felt more confident in their abilities to make healthy behavior changes.
A sense of purpose may also help you live longer, according to a 2019 study published in JAMA Network Open. The research looked at a cohort of 6,985 adults over age 50 and discovered an association between a sense of purpose and all-cause mortality. Older adults who had a high sense of purpose were less likely to die from heart disease or other health issues during the four-year research period than those who expressed a low sense of life purpose.
It’s unclear how a sense of purpose improves health and longevity but study co-author Aliya Alimujiang, MPH, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, believes those who feel a sense of purpose in their lives might have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
“[Inflammatory markers] were lower in people with higher psychological well-being, of which life purpose is a component,” she says. “From a behavioral perspective, it’s possible that a stronger sense of life purpose encourages individuals to commit to more physical activity, a healthier diet, not smoking or better use of preventive health services; these health-promoting behaviors have been demonstrated to decrease the risk of cardiometabolic disease and mortality.”
You may already know that your purpose for attending a crack-of-dawn spinning class is to beat a family history of heart disease or train for a heart-pumping hike on the Inca Trail. Keeping that goal top of mind helps you commit to healthy choices.
HOW TO FOSTER A SENSE OF PURPOSE
Hooker suggests putting a list of your goals on your fridge or the lock screen on your phone or setting a timer that prompts you to spend five minutes reflecting on your goals if you need regular reminders of your sense of purpose.
“Being aware of your purpose can give you the motivation to do things differently than you might have if you weren’t aware of your guiding goals,” she adds.
And, if you’re not quite sure how to define your sense of purpose, take heart says Alimujiang. “Life purpose is a modifiable factor,” she says. “Everyone can develop a life purpose.”