Why is it so easy for some people to meet fitness goals? Why do some people love eating healthy foods while others seem to struggle? The answer to those lingering questions may soon be solved. According to a new study from the Communication Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, people with a stronger sense of life purpose are more likely to accept promoting healthy change than those with a weaker sense of purpose.
“Purpose in life has been robustly associated with health in previous studies,” says postdoctoral fellow Yoona Kang, lead author of the study, “however the mechanism through which life purpose may promote healthy living has been unclear.”
The study, published by Health Psychology tested the theory that making healthy decisions might take less effort for those with a higher sense of purpose in life. According to Kang, health decisions involve some amount of decisional conflict. But what if some people experience less conflict than others?
The researchers recruited inactive people who needed to exercise more and make better choices. In order to be selected, participants had to be considered obese and had to have engaged in fewer than 200 minutes of physical activity in the seven days leading up to the study. Participants then completed surveys about their sense of life purpose by indicating the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with certain statements. For example, “I have a sense of what it is I’m trying to accomplish in life.” Next, participants were shown health messaging promoting physical activity and responses were monitored by an fMRI scanner, focusing on brain regions that tend to be active when people feel conflicted.
The study found that participants who reported a stronger sense of life purpose were more likely to agree with the health messages and to have less activity in brain regions associated with conflict-processing. In fact, the researchers were able to predict how likely it was that a person would agree with health messages based on the degree of brain activity monitored.
Based on the findings of this study, the research team’s next study will examine the interactions between genes, brain activity, and life purpose.