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The Willpower Factor in Health

Patch fitness columnist Andrea Metzker discusses psychologist Roy Baumeister’s groundbreaking research in his new “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.”

So it’s September and maybe its because I start back at work in September and maybe because my birthday is in September but the year always mentally starts here for me. Further, I always think of all the tasks I've not yet accomplish and try to do them all in one or two weeks before going back to work full-time. Of course, I am never successful but I never seem to change that plan. Perhaps because it seems better than having no plan and it is logical that if I am going to get pesky tasks done, the summer is when I have more time.

I know I am setting myself up for failure but I don’t feel as badly about it knowing that I will be joined in January by millions of Americans making (and breaking) New Year’s Resolutions. At least we know we have something in common with each other: a lack of willpower. Willpower defined as: control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control is something all of us have wished we had more of. We blame many of our shortcomings on the lack of will power.

Yet willpower is not just New Year’s resolutions and diets (the two most common associations.) In fact, one study showed that the desire to do something occurs to us about 50% of our day and half of those were desires that subjects were trying to resist. The researchers concluded that about four hours per day were spent trying to resist desires.

The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and other researchers have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task as they are pulling from the same, limited, resource. Further, there seems to be a relationship between sugar levels or glucose (the type of sugar our body uses for energy) and willpower. If you are low in glucose levels, you are going to have a harder time exhibiting willpower. Several studies have shown that people eating M & M’s or cookies can keep at a task needing self-control than those not eating at all or eating something non-sugary like radishes.

The good news, according to current research, is we can strengthen our willpower. Practicing the use of willpower by doing activities that take willpower leads to a greater source of willpower that will be available when we need it. One example of willpower training that Baumeister uses is to make yourself brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand for two weeks.

This research has many applications to just about everything in life. Let’s take a look at improving diet and increasing exercise. First off, according to the rules of willpower, these two things should never be started at the same time. One of the tips Baumeister makes is the reason a lot of people fail at goals is that we make too many at one time.

I have personally found that most people do too much too soon when wanting to increase exercise, and usually end up physically exhausted and overly sore and possibly injured. If instead we take small steps to increase exercise each day and increase our “willpower muscle” (along with the others) we can adapt to the new habit. Further, when something does become a habit, it no longer zaps our willpower. An alcoholic, for example, will likely use alot of willpower when meeting friends at a bar to watch a game while others in the group may not.

The catch-22 with dieting is the glucose and willpower connection. If we let our glucose levels get depleted, so too will our willpower. So too much deprivation in calories has a negative affect by depleting our willpower (along with our energy).

When it comes to diet, some of the already known dieting rules apply such as: record what you eat, plan ahead for tough situations  like parties (so your willpower isn’t as challenged) and don’t eliminate any one food which causes  too much of a feeling of desire and therefore deprivation of willpower reserves. It is also suggested not to go window shopping for things you can’t afford on the way to dinner because that will put you at a willpower low. Some new ideas based on this research are: weighing yourself everyday is a good idea and recording it is even better. The conventional wisdom has been that weighing yourself once a week is better than everyday but a long term study that tracked those who have lost weight found that people that weighed themselves everyday were much more likely to keep the weight off. This is consistent, says Baumeister, with other self-control research where frequent monitoring is shown to improve self-control.

 Another tip that I particularly like for eating control is if you desire something but know you should not have it tell yourself you can have it but just not right now. Apparently, telling yourself that you can have it satisfies the craving to a degree and may even suppress the appetite more than having the treat. It is also suggested that we reward ourselves often for reaching our goals.

In his book, Baumeister suggests that we should all be concerned with high willpower because the opposite: poor self-control leads to most of the major problems in life. People with less self-control are more prone to violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, chronic anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, poor diet, lack of exercise and explosive anger. Not only are people with more willpower less likely to have these characteristics but they are more likely, according Baumeister’s experiments to be altruistic, donate more to charity , do volunteer work and offer their own homes for shelter for people who have nowhere to go.

It may seem like a lot to offer for one little word but this research and the book from Baumeister are being called an instant classic. I personally think it holds a lot of promise. But, of course, like most humans I am always willing to believe in a new idea that could help me keep a New Year’s or a new season’s resolution.

Nancy Woo September 19, 2011 at 04:41 PM
I also consider September the beginning of the year (my birthday is the 5th)! And I am going to try that tooth brush tip, thank you. I agree, increasing will power in stages is much more effective than trying to go cold turkey from many things all at once. I do the slow build up, but I also know some people who work better by just slamming the door shut.


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