Brain Exercise

August 1st, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

How one’s sense of purpose, exercise and brain functioning are all related.

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The Responsibility Project

Canadian researchers recently completed a study that found that even modest physical activity among a group of elderly adults over the course of two to five years had remarkable effects on their cognitive functioning. The encouraging findings come on the heels of a Wall Street Journal article from back in April that suggests that people who live with a sense of purpose as they age – such as raising children or volunteering – are more likely to remain cognitively intact and even live longer than people who are focused on achieving “hedonic feelings” of pleasure. 

The WSJ article detailed the work of a team of University of Wisconsin researchers and their findings that those with greater purpose in life were better equipped to deal with everyday functions like housekeeping, managing money and walking up and down stairs as they got older, and they also lived longer than those with a low sense of purpose in life.

Meanwhile, people who seek rewards such as money or status aren’t as happy, said Richard Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester, and if people feel pressured to engage in activities that promote eudaimonic well-being, he told the Journal, they’re not likely to get much benefit. In fact, University of Wisconsin researcher Dr. Carol Ryff said that fixating on happiness can “in itself become a psychological burden.”

In another study, David Bennett – director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago – found that over a seven-year period, those reporting a lesser sense of purpose in life were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.

It makes sense that exercise, well-being and cognitive functioning are all related, and it’s even more encouraging to see academic rigor put behind such assumptions. But what do you think? Can volunteering or taking care of others can make you happier, more mentally fit, and possibly even live longer? Do you take a cynic’s view of stories like these, or do you take the research to heart?

(A portion of this story was previously published as “The Right Kind of Happy” on The Responsibility Project on 4/5/11)