Willpower, Self-Control and Habit – Which is the Key to Regular Exercise?

willpower and habit
Anyone who has struggled to resist tempting food while on a diet, or force themselves to exercise when they don’t want to, has run into the limitations of willpower. As it turns out, we only have a certain amount of willpower to call on every day, and it’s dependent on our body’s energy supply. That means willpower tends to be strongest at the beginning of the day, or when we’re otherwise fresh and well-rested. And, exerting willpower – self-control – can leave us drained. According to Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a health psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Willpower Instinct, “The brain uses more energy to curb your impulses than it does to perform other mental tasks.”

So, does that mean we’re helpless when it comes to losing that extra weight or exercising more often? Not if we switch our focus from willpower and self-control to developing healthful habits. What is it that governs our activity when our self-control fails? Habits – those automatic behaviors that allow us to function every day without having to consciously choose every single action. Habits are what win out when we’re tired and don’t have the energy for self-control. Therefore, the important consideration isn’t how much willpower we have, but what habits we have – and which ones we need to modify or gain in order to automatically choose healthful options as we go through our days.

There is a general belief that you can develop a new habit by performing the desired action every day for 21 days in a row. Sadly, that’s not how it works. Instead, according to business coach Tom Bartow, there are three phases to habit formation:

1. The Honeymoon Phase – the early “this is easy” phase of establishing a new habit.

2. The “Fight Thru” Phase – when reality sets in and you find yourself struggling. It’s critical to “fight thru” and win a few rounds at this stage to successfully develop a new habit. The following techniques can help:

Recognition – Acknowledging that you need to fight thru and win a few to move forward. Winning makes the next fight thru easier to win, while losing makes the next one easier to lose.

Ask Two Questions: Ask yourself “How will I feel if I do this?” and “How will I feel if I don’t do this?” The objective here is to bring emotion (feelings) into the equation. Feel the positive in winning and the negative in losing.

Life Projection: Imagine in great detail how your life will be in five years if you do not make changes. Be totally honest with yourself  and feel what your life will be like if changes aren’t made – and, feel what it would be like if you do change.

3. Second Nature Phase – when you feel that you’re “getting in the groove”. Be aware that an interruption at this stage can send you back to “Fight Thru”, where winning 2 or 3 fight thru’s will bring you back to “Second nature.”

It’s important to remember that good habits require ongoing and consistent commitment. Discouragement, disruption of daily patterns and the seduction of success can send you back to the Fight Thru phase.

The good news is that, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re forming new habits every day. Be conscious of that and focus on habits that will serve you and your health well. Regular exercise and healthy eating can become your “go-to” behavior when you’re too tired or stressed to exercise self-control through willpower. Do you have any further thoughts to share with Fit After Fifty?







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