July 12, 2024

Dr. Kevin Masters, a distinguished Clinical Health Psychology Professor at the University of Colorado, has dedicated his career to understanding the intricate relationship between psychology and cardiovascular health. His journey into the field of clinical health psychology was a gradual evolution, as he stumbled upon his passion towards the end of his doctoral training. A pivotal moment came during his residency internship at Duke University Medical Center, where he had the opportunity to work with diverse patients and fully immerse himself in health psychology. Today, he is a well-respected psychologist recognized for his extensive research and contributions to the field.

k_masters_10-2018_1Dr. Masters’ interest in health psychology stemmed from a deep-rooted curiosity about what keeps people healthy and flourishing. He was particularly drawn to outcomes that could be objectively measured, making his fascination with the tangible results of psychological interventions a driving force in his career. “One of the things that drew me to health psychology was the ability to have outcomes that were hard, measurable outcomes. If you teach a person to relax and they lower their blood pressure, that’s a hard outcome,” Dr. Masters noted. “I’ve always been interested in health and what helps people flourish. The idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can influence our health outcomes has always intrigued me.”

One of Dr. Masters’ early research projects focused on understanding the motivations of marathon runners. He was intrigued by the commitment and dedication required to complete a marathon, which often reshapes individuals’ lives through rigorous training and lifestyle adjustments. Through this research, he discovered that for many, running a marathon was more than a physical challenge—it provided a sense of purpose and meaning, driving them to push their limits. “I got interested in why people run marathons. To run a marathon requires a lot of training for most people. It’s a big commitment. Your whole life gets oriented around training and the actual marathon itself,” Dr. Masters explained. “I wondered why some people would do that and really get involved in this amount of exercise when by and large the trouble in America and most everywhere else is that people don’t do enough exercise.”

“I’ve always been interested in health and what helps people flourish. The idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can influence our health outcomes has always intrigued me.”

Dr. Masters’ research on marathon runners revealed that motivations varied depending on individuals’ experiences and backgrounds. To better measure the motivation of individuals in those who run marathons, Dr. Masters developed the Motivation of Marathoners Scale (MOMS). The scale, published in 1993, consists of nine scales that cluster under four general headings: psychological, achievement, social, and physical. The MOMS has been instrumental in understanding why people run marathons and how their motivations relate to other factors such as injury and demographics.

For novice marathoners, personal goal achievement was a significant driver. “The people that are sort of early in the game, it’s personal goal achievement. Most of them are not trying to win, they’re not trying to beat somebody, they’re just trying to see if they can do it,” he shared. As runners gained more experience, their motivations shifted. Older runners, for example, began to focus more on aspects like life meaning, self-esteem, and the social aspects of running. “People that ran several marathons tended to have what we call a marathon identity. They saw themselves sort of as a marathon runner. That’s part of who they are.” This connection between marathon running and meaning highlights the broader implications of Dr. Masters’ work. It suggests that engaging in activities that require commitment and sacrifice, like running a marathon, can fulfill fundamental human needs for structure, purpose, and understanding in one’s life.

man winning marathonDr. Masters’ interest in the intersection of meaning and motivation with health behaviors played a huge role in his specialization in cardiovascular health psychology. His research has shown that understanding the underlying motivations behind behaviors like running marathons can offer valuable insights into promoting healthier lifestyles. He explained his approach, asking, “What roles do meaning and purpose play in health and health behavior? If you feel that your life is more meaningful and purposeful, are you more likely to engage in healthy behaviors? Are you more inclined to take better care of yourself?” These questions have driven his exploration into the profound connection between meaning and health.

In doing so, Dr. Masters and his research team embarked on a journey to explore the relationship between meaning, health behaviors, and stress. The Colorado Meaningful Activity Project (COMAP), now known as MAP to Health, was a pivotal study that laid the foundation for Dr. Masters’ work concerning cardiovascular health and motivation. The project began in 2017 at the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, where participants underwent personalized interviews to determine what activities were meaningful to them. Based on these interviews, participants received personalized messages to encourage healthy behaviors, such as walking and exercising regularly.

They found that individuals who reported higher levels of meaning in their lives were more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as walking more and exercising regularly. Furthermore, they hypothesized that a sense of meaning may buffer the negative effects of stress, as individuals who are clear about what is meaningful to them may be less affected by everyday stressors. Their research has shown promising results, with preliminary studies indicating that interventions focused on increasing meaning awareness or meaning salience, led to improvements in both activity levels and perceived meaning in life. Dr. Masters emphasized the personalized nature of these interventions, stating, “We want it to be personal because what’s meaningful to you might not be the same thing that’s meaningful to me. And what’s meaningful to you this year might not be the same next year.”

Dr. Masters’ recent work on the role of purpose and meaning in health behaviors made him reflect on his earlier research on marathon runners. He found a significant overlap between the two areas, particularly in how running a marathon could provide clarity and purpose for individuals, especially younger people. In a time when younger generations may be seeking motivation and purpose, the challenge and commitment of training for a marathon could offer a sense of direction and accomplishment.

Looking ahead, Dr. Masters is committed to further investigating how meaning and purpose influence health. “We’re very interested in that on a number of levels. We’re exploring how these concepts apply to different stages of life,” he shared. His team is focused on the effects of meaning and physical health on Gen Z and retirees. Dr. Masters also discussed ongoing research with Jacinda Nicholas and Audrey Bergouignan on the psychological impacts of GLP-1 weight loss medications. This study examines how individuals perceive these medications and whether their use affects their sense of success or meaning in their weight loss journey. This qualitative, interview-based research aims to understand the experiential aspects of using these medications.

Dr. Masters’ innovative approach to integrating meaning and purpose into health behavior interventions offers a fresh perspective on motivating individuals to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles. His work highlights the critical role of meaning in health, paving the way for future research in this burgeoning field. By continuing to explore these connections, Dr. Masters and his team contribute invaluable insights that can help people lead healthier, more meaningful lives.

For more information on Kevin Masters and his groundbreaking studies, visit his profile at clas.ucdenver.edu/psychology/kevin-masters-phd.


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