Resistance training for your brain

These seven willpower workouts can help you overcome temptation just when you're most likely to give in

Willpower is the answer to everything — in theory. If you had lots of it, you might exercise more and eat less junk, not to mention work harder, show more patience and make better decisions. There’s hardly an area of life that wouldn’t be more successful if you did more of what you should and less of what you shouldn’t. In fact, research finds that people who best control their impulses are healthier, happier and more successful.

Unfortunately, many of us find that our willpower is weaker than what’s needed to negotiate the daily pitfalls of temptation and barriers to healthy living; fortunately, we can strengthen our self control. In fact, willpower is like a muscle, according to Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Florida State University, one of the leading researchers in the field, and the author of the book “Willpower.”

“Like a muscle, it gets tired.” he says. “The capacity to exert self control can become diminished.”


These research-based tips can strengthen willpower almost immediately.

WATCH A COMEDY! In one study, people faced with two tests of self-control did better on the second test if they lifted their moods with a short, funny video in between.

GIVE YOURSELF A ‘PREWARD.’ Reward yourself before, not after a difficult task. In one experiment, people who received a small gift ahead of time were more successful at choking down a vinegary “health” drink.

CREATE TIME BOXES. Imposing and meeting artificial deadlines in a study helped people manage time better and also led them to eat healthier and exercise more.

The stronger your mental muscle, the greater your endurance under the strain of temptation and the more powerful your capacity to push away the challenges to healthy living. So, how do you strengthen your willpower? With exercise and practice, just as you would build physical muscle. Researchers at Dartmouth College have identified seven major challenges that sap our self control. You can bolster your powers of resistance and fight these forces of temptation by taking steps to exercise your resolve — call them willpower workouts.

Challenge: Constant come-ons

It’s tough to resist desires — especially for food — when we’re surrounded by reminders to eat, or what researchers call cues. From fresh croissants at the corner bakery to food ads on websites, cues continually stimulate brain mechanisms that promote eating. “We’re influenced even by cues we’re not aware of,” says psychologist Todd Heatherton, a leading researcher at Dartmouth. “You might watch TV and not even pay attention to a food commercial but shortly afterward think you might like a snack.” Most people think they make 15 food-related decisions a day, according to research at Cornell University — but it’s more like 200.

Challenge: Emotional eating

You’re angry, frazzled, upset — and foul states of mind like stress and depression are directly related to all kinds of indulgences, from overeating to overspending. One explanation: Emotional distress has been shown to fire up activity in the brain’s reward circuits, boosting desire. Calming down may take the edge off comfort cravings.

Challenge: Slip-ups that spiral

Ever had one wayward candy bar turn into a day-long binge? You’ve probably experienced what researchers call the “What-the-heck effect.” When a person breaks their diet at lunch, the temptation is to say “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well give in at dinner too, and start fresh tomorrow.” But any lapse is only catastrophic to the extent you allow it to continue.

Challenge: Getting control

To some extent, you have to be aware of what you’re doing to control behavior, but it’s easy to forget the gym or wolf down another doughnut when you’re distracted by a deadline or absorbed in a favorite show. People often give in to temptation without thinking.

Challenge: Following the crowd

Being part of a group makes us do things we wouldn’t do on our own — like eating more when everyone else does. It’s a matter of values. If you're at a once-in-a-lifetime wedding party, maybe it’s okay to indulge and eat the cake. Look at patterns across days and weeks. If you constantly put social rewards ahead of your own goals, you may need to assert yourself more.

Challenge: Fortitude fatigue

Every effort at self control — from not laughing when a friend stubs their toe to being cordial toward a coworker you dislike — takes a toll on limited reserves of willpower, according to studies on “resource depletion” a key idea in recent research. The more depleted you are, the harder it becomes to resist demolishing a jumbo bag of chips when you get home from work — and the easier it is to make in-the-moment excuses to indulge.

Challenge: Cracking a bottle

Drinking loosens self control — obvious, yes, but that doesn’t keep alcohol from being the single-biggest willpower threat. Even non-dieters eat more unhealthy food when they drink.

One reason: Weaknesses tend to gang up. Stress saps self-control resources, making you less self-aware and more prone to follow the crowd to a bar.

Julie Cantrell is owner of Hood River Curves.

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Parkdale third graders sing "12 Disaster Days of Christmas"

Welcome to your sing-able Christmas gift list. What follows is an emergency rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” – for outfitting your home or car in case of snow storm, earthquake, flood or other emergency. Read it as a simple list, or sing it to the tune of “12 Days” – you know, as in “ … and a partridge in a pear tree…” Not to make light of it, but the song is a familiar framework for a set of gift ideas that you could consider gathering together, even if the recipient already owns items such as a bunch of coats, tire chains and flashlights. Stores throughout the Gorge are stocked up on all these items. Buying all 12 days might be prohibitive, but here are three ideas for checking any of the dozen off your list (notations follow, 1-12.) The gift items needed to stay warm, dry and safe are also coded to suggest items in your abode (A) in your car (C) or both (B). 12 Gallons of Water (A) 11 Family meals (B) 10 Cans of propane (A) 9 Hygiene bags (B) 8 Packs of batteries (A) 7 Spare coats (B) 6 Bright red flares (C) 5 Cozy blankets (B) 4 Tire chains (C) 3 Flashlights (B) 2 cell phone chargers (B) 1 And a crush-proof first aid kit (B) Price ranges? Here’s a few quotes for days Three, Two, Four and Nine: n A family gift of flashlights (three will run $15-30, Hood River Supply, Tum-A-Lum) n Cell phone chargers (two will run $30-60) n Tire chains (basic set, $30, Les Schwab, returnable if unused for the winter) n Family meals ($100 or so should cover the basics for three or four reasonably well-fed days) n The home kit should be kept in a handy place near an exit, and remember that water needs to be replenished every few months. If you have a solid first aid kit already, switch out the gift idea with “and-a-sto-o-u-t- tub-for it-all …” Otherwise, it’s a case of assembling your home or car kits and making sure all members of the family know what the resources are and how to use them (ie flares and propane). Emergency situations are at worst life-threatening, at best deeply uncomfortable if you and your family are left without power for an extended period, or traveling and find yourself in a situation where you need to wait out a storm, lengthy traffic delay, or other crisis. Notes on the 12 gift ideas: 12 – Gallons of water: that’s one per person in a four-member family to last for three days, the recommended minimum to be prepared for utility outages. 11 – Easy-open packaged goods, energy bars, dried food and nuts are good things to include for nutrition. Think of what your family of four needs for three days to stay fortified and hydrated (see number 12). Can-opener also recommended 10 – If you have a propane camping stove, keep extra fuel handy. 9 – Hygiene bags: put packaged moistened towelettes, toilet paper, and plastic ties in large garbage bags (for personal sanitation) Resource list courtesy of Hood River County Emergency Management, Barbara Ayers, manager/ 541-386-1213. The county also reminds residents to Get a Kit, Make A Plan to connect your family if separated, and Stay Informed. See to opt-in for citizen alerts. Enlarge

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