Have you noticed that it’s REALLY hard to resist tempting foods sometimes, but not at other times? Why is that? Why are we ok passing by the cookies on the counter in the morning, but not in the afternoon?
Helps to understand more about willpower – is it a personality trait or a physical thing?
Until Roy Baumeister and others started to study it in the 1990’s, willpower was assumed to be a personality trait.
But we were wrong! It’s NOT a personality flaw if you can’t resist those cookies in the afternoon.
In a series of experiments (links below), research has shown that…
- Willpower has a physical component and uses energy just like the rest of our body.
- When we are depleted, willpower will be depleted, too.
- It’s harder to stick to the plan when we’re tired, sick, and stressed.
- If we are trying to follow a restricted food list, don’t have the free to choose to have a treat, we’ll obsess a little on that forbidden food.
- If we don’t feel supported, we will become depleted faster and our willpower decreases.
We can use what they learned to increase our willpower.
“Willpower is a muscle that can be strengthened.”
How can we use this information to increase our willpower to stay on track with our fitness goals?
Willpower Secret 1:
Recognize that your willpower will be depleted over the course of your work day and plan around it.
Avoid the break room cookies in the afternoon. If you can’t avoid the break room, be mindful that the temptation WILL be stronger – but so are you!
If the after work gym visit never happens, start going before work or at lunch. It may be inconvenient and not optimal, but NOT going isn’t optimal either, right?
Willpower Secret 2:
Use a program that allows for personal choice instead of one that controls every detail.
Highly restrictive food programs are hard to stick with in the long-term. Flexible dieting is an approach that you can adjust as needed, so people are able to use it for years.
Flexible dieting also allows for you to use your favorite foods. Most people will use mostly whole foods with occasional treats to keep from feeling deprived.
Willpower Secret 3:
Connect with others who are doing what you’re doing. That may be family or friends. It could be joining a Facebook group.
If you choose to work with a fitness professional, work with trainers or coaches who are flexible and supportive. Do NOT work with a coach/trainer that provides a short list of “approved” foods and has a “my way or highway” mentality.
You’re learning how to make sustainable changes – which means you need the flexibility to make mistakes. Obstacles will be there. Life happens.
You need your coach to hold you accountable, true, but also to be your guide as you learn how to “not quit” when things become difficult to manage.
Willpower Secret 4:
Incorporate diet breaks and refeeds.
It’s easier to “embrace the suck” today when you know it’s temporary because you have a refeed or diet break already scheduled.
Willpower Secret 5:
Plan for setbacks. Willpower will be depleted when you get sick or if something stressful happens.
When you’re sick or have higher than normal amounts of stress, your body will produce more cortisol and that will stall your efforts to lose fat or gain muscle.
If you’re in a fat-loss phase and get sick, bring your calories up to maintenance for a few days. That can also be the plan when you’re under an abnormal amount of stress for a temporary amount of time. (Notice I said “when” and not “if” under stress? It’s part of life. I’ve never met anyone immune to it.)
Willpower Secret 6:
Focus on progress, not perfection. Don’t try to run a “perfect” willpower program.
First – you can’t do it perfectly. You’re human. And there are probably people in your life that you love, but things they have going on might complicate your best intentions with repsect to your own program.
Second – despite the blessings in your life that complicate it, you CAN be successful running an “imperfect” program. I know this because no one does it perfectly and so many others have traveled this same path ahead of you to reach their goals.
Perfection? Nope – you need to let that go. There will be good days. Even amazing days! And some crappy days, too. It’s ok. It still works.
Willpower Secret 7:
Practice mindset “resets”. What you tell yourself matters!
- The researchers found that people in the willpower experiment ran by a controlling, unsupportive person gave up faster.
- Avoid being the controlling, unsupportive person in your own life!
Practice catching a negative self-talk loop faster than before. Reframe it. Tomorrow is another day! You have done harder things than NOT eating something. Gym time is self-maintenance which is just as important as other things on your “to do” list. You get the idea… a mindset reset!
Muraven M, Gagné M, Rosman H. Helpful Self-Control: Autonomy Support, Vitality, and Depletion. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2390997/
Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? Roy E Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice Case Western Reserve University https://faculty.washington.edu/jdb/345/345%20Articles/Baumeister%20et%20al.%20(1998).pdf
The Chocolate-and-Radish Experiment That Birthed the Modern Conception of Willpower https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/04/the-chocolate-and-radish-experiment-that-birthed-the-modern-conception-of-willpower/255544/
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Hi! I'm Tammy! I was a busy, stressed, and unhealthy teacher until I decided to take control of my health. I did not become an athlete until I was in my 50's!
I earned personal training and fitness nutrition certifications, then retired from teaching to dedicate my work life to fitness education for other busy women over 40.
My results are obviously not typical because most people don't train to compete as a bodybuilder.
But I believe everyone can make positive changes with healthy habits! Each of us has a unique combination of strengths and challenges that need to be considered to customize a program that will work for us. Science-based principles, flexibility, and consistency make all the difference.