Marie-Josée Shaar MAPP, CPT

Smarts and Stamina

The Surprising Solution to Improve Your Health

Best of all: you can get it done without scheduling an extra minute in your day!

Posted Oct 28, 2014

 Develop a Sense of Purpose
Think of a goal that you left unmet, without too much regret. Now think of one you have pursued tirelessly, despite obstacles, adversities, and situational challenges. What was the difference between these two goals?

I don’t know you, but I’m ready to bet that goal #2 had a lot more meaning for you than goal #1.

Over the years, I have interviewed numerous individuals who have done what 95% of people can’t do: lost a significant amount of weight and, against all odds, kept it off. “What was your motivation?” I ask. The answer is never about fitting in, looking good, or feeling sexy. It’s always about having the energy to play with their kids or grandkids, living longer to be around for their loved ones, leading by example, or having been scared of losing it all to a heart attack after doing something as simple as going up a flight of stairs or tying a shoe.

Purpose is a huge driver of how we think, feel and respond. It motivates us to accomplish feats we’d never consider otherwise - and that includes health goals.

Here are the broad lines of a conversation I’ve shared with Victor Strecher, PhD, Professor of Health Behavior & Health Education at the University of Michigan, on the health benefits of leading a purposeful life.

Disease Prevention

According to Strecher, various studies show that the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to cultivate a sense of intentionality protects against Alzheimer’s and stroke, and it may extend to other diseases as well. “The basic idea is that it somehow provides functional resilience in the face of multiple diseases,” says Patricia Boyle, PhD, a neuropsychologist whose primary interest is the prevention of age-related cognitive and functional decline.

The Blue Zones, the six or seven areas around the world with the highest percentage of centenarians ever recorded in history, illustrate that general resilience to disease very well. Not only do these centenarians achieve remarkable longevity, but also enviable vitality, with high energy and a striking absence of disease. Having a higher sense of purpose is one of nine things these centenarians do differently.

Improve Habits

There is evidence that finding meaning is associated with reduced cortisol. High cortisol is associated with insomnia, high-sugar high-fat food cravings, and feelings of irritability and impatience. In our book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, Kathryn and I show that reducing cortisol helps improve sleep, food, and mood habits, which in turn benefit exercise intentions and implementation.

But there is more, according to Strecher. “In a study of 154 participants with cocaine dependence (yes, tackling the 500-lbs gorilla here), purpose in life predicted ability to avoid relapse to any use of cocaine and alcohol in the 6 months after treatment.” Now that's an idea worth sharing!

Increase Longevity

The example of the centenarians living in the Blue Zones described above already illustrates that having a sense of purpose can benefit our longevity. Up to 7 years of extra life expectancy, according to their research. We also know that better habits and decreased substance abuse lead to a longer life. “Do you have more evidence on that,” I asked Strecher? His answer was affirmative. “In a study of 1361 older adults, participants with a strong sense of purpose were less likely to die over the study follow-up period than those who did not.

While we don’t have exact statistics on it, purpose may also be a predictor of survival under dire circumstances. Viktor Frankl shared that in the concentration camps of World War II, as long as the detainees could find meaning in their situation, they could also find ways to hold on and preserve their lives. But loss of purpose led to a certain death.” Ouch!

Asking Why

Strecher summarizes it well. “What’s the point of high energy and living a long time if we think life sucks? When we have purpose, we want to be at our best so we can better serve that mission. Purpose is akin to the root system of a tree, grounding and feeding the whole organism so it can flourish and thrive, no matter what the exterior conditions are.”

If you are working on your health habits or helping anyone else improve their health, make sure to give purpose its due place in your effort, because it may lead to the desired outcomes most other techniques fail to generate. 

Tweetable to share: “Can purpose in life reduce the effects of poor health habits?” via @gotsas #healthyliving #wellness


MJ Shaar, MAPP, CPT, is the Founder and Owner of Smarts and Stamina, a company devoted to helping wellness professionals thrive. MJ is the author of Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance.

MJ is regularly featured in the media and in industry conferences. She isavailable for speaking engagements, training workshops, media commentary, and private wellness coaching. To learn more, contact MJ at, or visit

Connect with MJ on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.



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