Bethan Mooney for TIME
By Alexandra Sifferlin
June 14, 2016
TIME Health
For more, visit TIME Health.

As several recent studies have confirmed, as many as 95% of people don’t meet the amount of exercise the government recommends. Some research suggests that just getting some exercise is better than nothing at all, and other researchers are looking at what distinguishes people who are motivated to workout regularly compared to people who don’t.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Denver wanted to take a closer look at something raised by prior studies finding that having purpose in life is associated with more physical activity. To do this, they had 104 people fill out questionnaires about their health and levels of optimism and purpose. They then had the people wear accelerometers to calculate their physical activity over a three-day period (instead of relying on people to truthfully tell them how much they exercise).

In their report, which is published in the Journal of Health Psychology, the study authors found that the people who reported having a stronger sense of purpose in their life were more physically active. “Reminding yourself what gives your life meaning and purpose, and connecting that to why you want to be physically active, could improve the chances that you stick with it,” says study author Stephanie A. Hooker of the University of Colorado Denver in an email.

The number of people in the study was small, and three days’ worth of accelerometer data doesn’t provide the most thorough picture of someone’s weekly exercise habits. However, the study is not the first to suggest that people who feel life is meaningful often report adhering to healthier lifestyles.

“We believe that having a strong sense of purpose in life gives people reasons or the ‘whys’ of engaging in healthy behaviors,” says Hooker. “Healthy behaviors, like physical activity, are not inherently pleasurable for all people, but connecting physical activity to one’s innermost values and goals may increase the likelihood that people engage in these behaviors on a regular basis.”

But can that sense of purpose be cultivated? Hooker thinks so. “There are multiple ways to get in touch with one’s sense of purpose and make connections to the deeper reasons why someone wants to engage in healthy behaviors,” she says. “Many times this is done through reflective journaling, values strengthening exercises, and long-term goal setting.”

She says there are ways health providers can also steer people toward meaningful health goals. “If someone told me they wanted to be more physically active to lose weight, I might ask them why they wanted to lose weight,” Hooker explains. “They might say they want more energy to play with their kids, which would eventually lead down the path to the person [wanting] to be a better parent.”

Though the study is small, Hooker and her co-author argue that purpose should be examined as a target for increasing physical activity.

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