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I am a person who loves to work out. Whether in a barre class, weight training or knocking out some cardio, it’s a time when I (literally) close my eyes and lose myself in the physical sensations of muscle movement and the music.
It focuses me on the here and now, and at the same time lets me sweat out my anxiety and stress. Afterward, I feel content and calm.
What’s a bit of a struggle is getting to the workout, prying myself off the couch or away from my computer and actually making the moves necessary to get from point A to point B (you know, putting one foot in front of the other). I start to bargain with myself that I’ll exercise tomorrow, or that I really need to go grocery shopping and fill the empty fridge, or deal with the laundry.
Yet somehow, I find myself pulling on my capris, lacing up the Nikes and, almost in spite of myself, getting out the door.
So how does that happen—summoning the willpower time and again to move beyond a temporary discomfort or obstacle (inertia) for a longer term goal (feeling great, strong)? I am definitely not more evolved than the next person, so where does that determination come from?
Turns out that willpower isn’t a character trait or a virtue, as once thought. Rather, it’s a complex mind-body response that can be strengthened through practice, just like a muscle, according to Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist, lecturer at Stanford University, and author of “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.” And, same as your biceps or quads, it can be trained to meet challenges head on with the proper fuel and made stronger through practice and exercise.
As with any physical effort, flexing your willpower may feel uncomfortable at first, but over time becomes less of a struggle. What starts out as a “willpower challenge” (whether it’s getting to the gym, choosing a piece of fruit over a pint of ice cream, even saving money) becomes easier the more you do it. In my case, I’ve been down this road many times before, so my motivation and stamina to resist the siren song of a nice nap have strengthened with practice.
But how do you summon the strength to start facing down the demon temptations in the first place? If you think about the practices that sustain an athlete’s strength and commitment, they’re pretty much the same as what’s needed to train your metaphorical willpower muscle. Research shows that these practices benefit both body and mind. They’re fairly “tiny interventions,” McGonigal points out, “but they have huge payoffs down the road.”
Here’s how to train the physiology of your willpower.
If you’re getting less than 6 hours a night, your brain won’t be able to recruit the systems needed for impulse control. It’s heavy lifting for the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that keeps long-term goals (saving money, for instance) and core values on the front burner. When your brain is sleep-deprived, “it overreacts to ordinary everyday stress and temptations. It loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings,” explained McGonigal. To function thoughtfully, the brain needs to use energy well, and sleep deprivation can get in the way of that.
If there’s a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention, says McGonigal. “Meditation is not about getting rid of all your thoughts; it’s learning not to get so lost in them that you forget what your goal is. When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses—not your long-term goals—will guide your choices. Meditation training improves a wide range of willpower skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. It changes both the function and structure of the brain to support self-control.” And it doesn’t take years of practice—brain changes have been observed after 8 weeks of daily meditation, for as little as 10 minutes a day.
Exercise also leads to similar changes in the brain, especially in the prefrontal cortex. Regular exercise—both cardiovascular training and mindful exercise like yoga—helps burn off stress, which gives willpower a boost. “The biology of stress and the biology of self control are incompatible,” McGonigal says. Anytime we’re stressed out it’s harder to find our willpower. “The fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision-making. Stress also encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind.” Exercise as a stress management tool is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower.
Research shows that something as simple as eating a more plant-based, less-processed diet makes energy more available to brain and can improve every aspect of willpower. There’s something about big spikes in blood sugar levels (from pastries, soda, or fast food, for instance) and then big drops that “really screws things up,” said McGonigal. Whereas a steady blood sugar level keeps your brain functioning “like an energy efficient machine” to help you control impulses and find your motivation.
McGonigal says that adopting just one behavior from this list can make a difference, though ironically we may think it will take a lot of…willpower: “Like, OK now I have to force myself to sit down and meditate, or work out, or say no to the donut.” But we don’t realize that “not doing these things is part of what makes it difficult to begin.”
Pushing through, she said, pays back big time. For instance, exercising regularly not only makes it easier to exercise but also to stop procrastinating, to eat healthier, to not blow your whole paycheck on a new pair of shoes. There’s a sort of “global training effect” on that willpower muscle. And that’s when it starts to get easier, and “new behaviors become [good] habits.”