Sense of purpose has been associated with multiple cognitive and other health outcomes in older adults. Using longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Survey, researchers investigated whether the benefits associated with a greater sense of purpose extended to older adults’ physical fitness.
Study participants indicated how much they agreed with a statement related to having a sense of purpose in life, such as “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.” Of these participants, 4,486 (average age 63) also took tests of grip strength and 1,461 (average age 70) took tests of walking speed. These tests were given twice, four years apart. In addition to being common measures of physical function in older adults, walking speed and grip strength have been associated with health outcomes including morbidity and mortality.
When researchers looked at the physical fitness data, they found that just under 10% of the participants had weaker grip strength four years later and 47% had slower walking speed at follow-up. When they looked at the relationship of grip strength and sense of purpose, they found that each standard deviation increase of purpose in life was associated with a 13% decreased risk of developing weak grip strength. The researchers noted that the effect size of purpose on grip strength is “approximately equivalent to being 3 years younger.”
As for walking speed, each standard deviation increase of purpose in life was associated with a 14% decreased risk of developing a slow walking speed. Researchers described the relationship between higher sense of purpose and walking speed as equivalent to being 2.5 years younger.
On the other hand, there were no associations between initial grip strength or walking speed and changes in sense of purpose four years later.
The researchers suggest that the findings could be due to physiological benefits associated with sense of purpose, such as lower stress or inflammation, or due to individuals with greater sense of purpose being more proactive about their health.
This study provides additional evidence of the importance of having a sense of purpose in life, and suggests the importance of finding ways to cultivate or support older adults’ sense of purpose.