Having a positive outlook as we age may not only be related to mood; it may also be reflected in our physical well-being. A large longitudinal study of 3,199 men and women aged 60 and older in Great Britain has revealed a relationship between happiness and better physical function.
Lead study author Andrew Steptoe, DSc, at University College London, said to IDEA Fitness Journal, “This research suggests that enjoyment of life contributes to a healthier and more active old age. It suggests that among other things, we should think about the positive aspects of life and experience [for] older people. Not only are these important issues in themselves; they may also have benefits in terms of physical function. These [benefits] could in turn help us contain the spiraling costs of social and health care among older sectors of society.”
Researchers conducted the study to discover whether life enjoyment also predicted a reduced risk of physical impairment over an 8-year period in a large population sample. Investigators collected data on physical health, walk- ing speed and mobility, depression, enjoyment of life, and levels of impairment in daily activities, among other categories, at baseline and every 2 years afterward. Data analysis showed strong associations between physical function and life enjoyment. Steptoe said in a Canadian Medical Association news release, “This is not because the happier people are in better health, or younger, or richer, or have more healthy lifestyles at the outset, since even when we take these factors into account, the relationship persists.”
In his remarks to IDEA Fitness Journal, Steptoe added, “We have previously shown that positive well-being and enjoyment of life are predictors of longer life. So older people who report greater enjoyment are less likely to die over the next 5–8 years than those with lower enjoyment of life. What this study showed was that older people who enjoy life are also at lower risk for developing problems with activities of daily living, and for showing declines in physical function.”
Steptoe recommended that “fitness professionals should make efforts to increase the enjoyment of life in their older clients. Most fitness professionals and physical activity educators enjoy physical activity—otherwise, they would probably be doing a different job. But this is not necessarily true of everyone in the population. The challenge is to enhance enjoyment and pleasure in life for those who don’t find vigorous activity very appealing.”
The study is available in Canadian Medical Association Journal (2014; doi: 10.1503/cmaj.131155).