Strengthen Your Willpower to Make Exercising Easier

A new study finds that your motivation to lose weight may be hindered more by a lack of willpower than by exhaustion.

October 6, 2009

A rough day can drain your willpower, and make after-work workout plans harder to stick with.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—We all have days like this: You've got the motivation to lose weight and the desire to do so, but at the end of the day, you're just too tired to get yourself to the gym. Or are you? A new study published in the journal Psychology and Health suggests that exhaustion may have nothing to do with it. This study of Canadian college students found that a rough day can sap willpower. And that makes it too easy to succumb to the temptation to veg out on the couch rather than go for a run.


THE DETAILS: Researchers put 61 healthy but nonexercising college students through a series of mental and physical tests to see how sapping their self-control mentally would impact their desire to work out. For the first portion of the test, the students rode a stationary bike for 15 minutes while the researchers measured their level of exercise intensity. They were then asked to plan out their own exercise routine on some of the gym's equipment, and record the level of intensity at which they planned to do each exercise. At the third stage of the test, one group of students underwent a challenging mental task, while the other group was given something very simple to do. Finally, the students were asked to repeat the planning of an exercise routine, and then perform another 15-minute ride on the bike.

Compared with the group given the easy mental task, the students who were challenged performed the second bike ride at a much lower level of intensity than they did their first bike ride, and they planned out a second exercise routine that left them working out at much lower intensities than their first exercise routine.

WHAT IT MEANS: You may feel like it's exhaustion draining your motivation to lose weight, but it could just be that a difficult day at work, or an argument with a significant other, has sapped your willpower and self-control. "The number one reason people say they don't exercise is that they don't have time," says lead study author Kathleen Martin Ginis PhD, professor of health and exercise psychology in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University. "But when you compare people who exercise versus those who don't, the people who exercise aren't any less busy in their daily lives," she says. The difference is, given a window of 35 minutes, the people who exercise think that they can get in a 30-minute run, whereas those of us without adequate willpower will simply sit on the couch and watch TV. That doesn't mean skipping a workout is a sign of a weak will. It just means your willpower muscle needs to be exercised just as much as your abs.

The good news is, Ginis says, self-control and willpower can be enhanced with a few simple tricks:

• Outsmart yourself. The fewer decisions you have to make about exercising, the fewer opportunities there are for you to bail out. "The most effective thing to do is to structure your exercise so you don't need so much self-control," she says. "If you're a morning person, exercise first thing in the morning before the rest of the day has sapped you of willpower." But if you don't have the self-control to keep from hitting the snooze button, plan your workouts in advance, writing down exactly how long you plan to exercise and at what intensity. "Having those things laid out and mapped out means that there's one less element of self-control that's required," says Ginis.

• Watch a YouTube video of weird pet tricks. Rather than write that last email of the day, watch a funny online video or listen to a song that puts you in a good mood. "People in a good mood have more willpower," says Ginis. That video or catchy tune may just give you the willpower boost you need to get to the gym.

• Take a power nap. Sometimes, Ginis adds, all you need to rejuvenate your willpower is a little quiet time. As little as 10 to 15 minutes of sitting quietly with your eyes closed can do the trick, she says.

• Drink the Kool-Aid. Taking a few sips of Kool-Aid or lemonade or some other sugar-sweetened beverage has also been found to boost your self-control, Ginis says. "Self-control is a brain-related activity. The brain runs on glucose, so if you give yourself something with sugar in it, it can kick-start your willpower." It's important to use real glucose, she says. Studies have found that artificial sweeteners don't have the same effect. And watch your intake—we're not talking about a can of soda here, just a few sips or a gulp. Sugar-sweetened beverages are widely blamed for the current obesity epidemic.

• Train it like an athlete. Research has shown that testing your willpower with small tasks allows you to build up reserves for more challenging tasks, such as exercising for 30 minutes six days a week. Start with something small that you think you can do every day; make your bed in the morning or brush your teeth with the other hand, for example. Once you've started doing that, move on to something a little more difficult, like paying the bills as soon as they come in or vowing to read a weekly magazine cover-to-cover before the next issue arrives. Becoming more disciplined in one area of your life carries over to being disciplined in others, such as your exercise habits.