By Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal
Willpower: How to get it, keep it, and why you need it to reach your health and fitness goals!
Willpower is one of those tricky things that brings up different feelings in different people. For me? I am convinced I do not have it. A diet lasts about one week before I am powerless over a plate of fries. I’m envious of my husband who makes a goal, keeps that goal, and often reaches his goal—even with setbacks and other bumps along the road. Determined to get to the core of what willpower really is and how I can amp up mine, I went to the experts. The results are fascinating.
At its essence, willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. It almost feels like a superpower that some are born with and others are not. Have you ever been out to dinner with a group of friends and wondered how that one girlfriend (you know who she is) could just sit there and not even have a single bite of bread out of the basket? Her strength is real but it’s also been trained and protected. The twist? Willpower is finite, say Roland and Galina Denzel, author of Eat Well, Move Well, Live Well: 52 Ways to Feel Better in a Week.
“A study showed that when participants were asked to resist eating cookies after smelling them—and were asked to eat radishes instead—they later failed a mathematical task,” the Denzels explain. “They could not solve [the math problem] because their willpower had been weakened by resisting the cookies.”
So, we all have willpower—but sometimes the stresses of life overtake those extra steps need to access it. Read on for important ideas on how to rethink the concept of willpower while reconnecting with your inner strength. And for more answers to the things that trip you up on your better-health journey, check out these 22 Difficult Eating Dilemmas—Solved!
We’ve all been there; we want to stick to our diet and lose weight but can’t stop thinking about a craving like chocolate cake. “Unfortunately, far too many of us walk around in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight,” says Emily Fletcher, founder of zivaMind and meditation expert for Expectful. “We refer to it as being stressed. But what we don’t realize is that it’s this stress that is keeping us from reaching our goals.” Fletcher says the solution can be meditation, though. “When you meditate, you’re de-exciting your nervous system in a way that shifts your brain from a ‘fight-or-flight’ mindset to one of ‘stay-and-play.’ When your body and mind are relaxed, you’re able to access your higher-level thinking as opposed to letting your survival instincts run the show. Your prefrontal cortex is activated, and this is the part of the brain associated with self-regulation and goal-oriented decision making.” Translation: It’s far easier for you say, “Actually, I don’t need cake right now.”
Fletcher says the best part of meditation is it helps you build your willpower over time. “It’s not about fighting the cravings, it’s about reducing the cravings in the first place by addressing the underlying factors. And then once you have this foundation, you’re better equipped to start building new habits and rewiring your brain so that making healthy choices is your default.” Learn more about How Meditation Works
and how to make it work for your goals.
When fitness expert and coach Nadia Murdock sees her clients falling off the bandwagon, she asks them one very important thing: what is holding them back? “Pinpointing what has been holding you back from successfully achieving your goals is important,” she says. “Once you have zeroed in on the obstacles, finding the willpower to avoid over-indulgence or skipping the gym will be easier. Then you must acknowledge your accomplishments no matter how big or small. This will help to strengthen your willpower and encourage you to keep pushing along!” But you’re human, so if you do slip up, you can’t throw in the towel. “Learn from that mistake and make it work for you and not against you. This will give you the strength you need to be a better version of yourself.”
“In order to find your willpower, visualize what you’re trying to accomplish,” suggests Crunch Gyms Master Trainer Eve Karlin. Karlin suggests writing down your goals—with deadlines—to eventually meet what you’re visualizing. And even if what you’re thinking about is a big dream, to chop it up into smaller goals. Speaking of writing things down, don’t miss these 10 Tips for Keeping a Food Journal for Weight Loss
Often, when we set a goal—and need the willpower to take us there—we set the bar high. Instead of going to the gym once or twice a week, we feel it has to be every day. But that is a surefire way to trip yourself up and feel too overwhelmed. “There are a lot of things like that in which we think, ‘I won’t get my novel done unless I can put aside a whole weekend to write.’ Well, you could create a novel in a paragraph a day,” Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist from the Stanford University said on the TED blog. “So I encourage people to think about the smallest step that they could take that is consistent with their goal, regardless of whether they believe it’s sufficient.”
Creating a routine that emphasizes health and fitness will keep you on track for success—and keep your willpower at the forefront. Karlin says that doing things like prepping your meals every Sunday or adding a workout to your schedule gives you the consistency you need. You just have to find the routine that works for you. And if you lose your willpower? Karlin suggests “finding an activity or a challenge that will motivate you to get back on track. It might be an upcoming race, taking a new class, or getting a personal trainer to help kick-start your fitness journey again.” For some inspiration on what to incorporate into your routine, check out these 21 Things People With Six-Packs Do Every Week
Speaking of routine, here’s a trick that can help you stay focused. There’s a study that shows if you clench your left fist (not your right), it can prevent you from choking in high-pressure situations. Researchers believe that left fist clenching primes the right hemisphere of the brain, aiding in automatic skill performance. So, it’s definitely a way to trick yourself the next time you think that you might go for that slice of pizza instead of ordering a salad. If you feel the heat, clench your left fist to see if it helps you make the choice you know is better for you!
It’s a myth that willpower is something you have to tackle alone. “The best way we stay on track with our health and fitness goals is by having an accountability partner,” suggests Katrina Scott and Karena Dawn of Tone It Up. “If you have a pal, then you’re more likely to succeed. The TIU girls even admit they have had days when they don’t feel like hitting up their morning yoga class or going on a post-work run. “But because we know that we’re counting on each other, we show up for those days—and you never regret a workout!” For more tips from on-trend trainers and workouts, scope out these 30 Tips You Can Learn from Today’s Hottest Workouts
While it seems like getting enough sleep is the magic cure for everything, it really can do wonders for fighting off temptation, no matter what it may be. “When you’re sleep deprived, you are so much less likely to turn down junk food, get yourself to the gym, or spend time socializing. We all know that everything bothering us bothers us more when we’re tired, and everything we do feels harder when we’re tired,” explains Annie Lawless, health and wellness expert, and co-founder of Suja Juice. “So, don’t let being tired zap your willpower. Make sure to get plenty of sleep so that you have the energy to make the best choices to achieve your health goals.” Can’t fall asleep? Find out The #1 Fruit to Eat Before Bedtime
Acknowledging that you made a good choice and used your willpower in even a small way is so important. “When you’re training a puppy and he does something right, you say ‘good job!’ and give him/her a treat. Why don’t we do this for ourselves when we do something right?” asks Lawless. “Affirming good behavior is important for all creatures and strengthens our resolve to keep it up and do it better. If you’ve been great with your diet and workouts, reward yourself with a cheat meal or buy yourself a beautiful new workout outfit. That little treat may be just the motivation you need to keep going and avoid burnout.”
Paul Roller, a coach at CrossFit Outbreak, also describes willpower as a finite quality. The more tough decisions you’re forced to make daily, the faster your willpower juice will be drained. “In order to get and keep your willpower, it is important to put systems in place that take the decision-making out of your hands,” he says. For example, do not buy junk food to store in your house; if you are going to indulge in a treat, go out and buy it in a single serving. “Doing this eliminates the decision of ‘Should I have a few cookies?’ when you open your kitchen cabinet,” he explains.
“Your willpower is naturally in you—it’s your life force,” says Dr. Tina Chadda, founder of Akasha Meditation. “The key is to access it and to stay in touch with it, especially if you are trying to achieve certain health and wellness goals. Remember, it’s fear of failure that dilutes willpower.” Dr. Chadda suggests repeating the following mantra as a way of always being able to tap into what’s within you: “I will access my natural power!”
“Normally, when we ‘don’t make our goal’ it means we have failed in some way,” explains Ken Immer, CCHE and President & Chief Culinary Officer of Culinary Health Solutions. “But the new definition of a goal does not include failure. You allow for the possibility of not reaching the goal. Life happens, and our priorities can change. The idea is to just stay flexible and use the goal as a sign post. Like a north star. It gives direction, but that’s it.”
Think of willpower as the fire inside you, keeping you motivated when you want to quit. It’s a strength you need in order to resist urges and to increase focus. “Like all muscles in the body, willpower needs to be exercised, worked on, and rested,” says LIT Method co-founders Taylor Gainor and Justin Norris. “If you feel like you’ve lost your willpower, chances are you’re overworked and need to take a break. Start back up and focus on building the fire back within you!” If you feel like you need to restart a weight loss journey, then try these 15 Easy Ways to Reset Your Diet
“I believe that willpower is strongest when you’re in line with your values,” says Lola Berry, author of The Happy Cookbook
. “And let’s get clear on this one; it’s a big part of who you are, what you believe, how you function and the souls you choose to share your life with. Defining your values is a key step in becoming clear on what you want your life to look like. Values are what matter most. Experts say that if you live your life according to your core values, you’ll feel much more fulfilled, on point, clear, and experience a great sense of well-being.” It’s one of the 30 Proven Tips for How to Be Happy
“When setting your goals, picture yourself having achieved the goal already, whether it’s running a mile in record time or fitting in those white capri pants for the summer,” the Denzels instruct. “Notice how you feel when you have gotten there, what you see with your eyes, and what you hear with your ears. Listen to those compliments and receive them. Be present with the image of the future you. Seeing yourself as if you have already achieved your goal is incredibly powerful and helps replenish the well of willpower. Next, speak your goal out loud in the present tense: ‘I can fit in my white capri pants’ or ‘I can run that mile faster than ever.’ Take some deep breaths as you hold that image and those words in your awareness.”
Committing to daily activities toward the direction of your new goals may mean choosing to go out with more health-minded friends than for pizza night with the girls or going for a walk instead of binge watching everything on your DVR. “Numerous studies are showing that when we surround ourselves with people who have the lifestyle we strive for, it’s easier to get there,” say the Denzels. “Support your new health and fitness habits by creating an environment that makes it easy to stick to them.” It’s one of the 20 Things Only Formerly-Overweight People Know
And with that last tip in mind, it’s very important to learn the art of saying “no.” “We often give up on our deepest heart desires in order to please others. Sticking to a specific routine of movement, diet, and exercise may require that you put yourself first and make sure that you honor your desires by saying no to others,” say the Denzels. “It’s not about being selfish; it’s about self-respect and self-preservation. If you don’t make your goals important and say yes to what you need, no one will.”
Expecting that your willpower will always be unbreakable is like expecting that you will never fight with your husband or that your kids will never be naughty. Life isn’t perfect and neither is your health and fitness journey. “When you find yourself slipping into habits that don’t respect your current health and fitness goals, take a deep breathing break,” suggest the Denzels. “Think about how hard it is to be human—how many tasks, priorities, and duties we have daily. Think about some things that you are still doing well—like still feeding the family or completing work tasks. While your workouts may be lagging behind, you are still doing well in the other areas. In this moment, can you have some self-compassion, some understanding, and some clarity about perfection being an impossible goal?”
Once you’re done with your self-compassion break, then go ahead and determine one thing you want to do tomorrow that will help you get back on track. Maybe it’s making breakfast
or just taking a walk with a friend, but that first action will put you back on track because if you expect to lose your willpower at times, it will be so much easier to get it back.
“Reminding yourself that you can do it and you can succeed can be much more powerful than willpower,” says Stephanie Mansour, a weight-loss and lifestyle coach for women. “And it helps you work with your body rather than fighting against your body. Act as if you’re already in that size 6 dress or already confidently walking into a dinner party in a sleeveless top.”
If you feel like you’re making unhealthy food
choices or feeling disconnected from your goal, Mansour says to take matters into your own hands by “putting an alarm on your phone for every few hours to show you a smiley face or a positive affirmation about yourself.” It’s an easy way to keep strengthening your relationship with yourself and therefore stay connected and committed to reaching your goal!
It used to be thought that it took 21 days to develop a new habit. But in 2010, the University College London conducted a study to see if that was accurate. They discovered that 66 days is really the magic number for a new behavior to become automatic. Sure, it’s three times as long as we initially thought but there’s a way to break that two month (and change) timeframe down to really get down to business.
Days 1-22: tell the world about the change you want to make and ask your friends/family to hold you accountable.
Days 23-44: Go deep and inward to figure out why you’re making this changes and really understand why it’s so important to you.
Day 45-66: You’re in the homestretch and you’ve made it 45 days! Hang on for another 21—and then celebrate! You’ve got 66 impressive days behind you and it will be like you never knew anything different.
When you have willpower, it’s a key source of inner strength and the power to proceed through many of life’s tasks—especially when it comes to health and fitness goals. “Willpower can not only help with focus but can also help overcome obstacles. Therefore, practicing mindfulness can be a beneficial factor in not only strengthening willpower but keeping it. When we lose our clarity, we often lose connection and personal power,” explains Ivo Grossi, VP of SportsArt. “Neuroscience research over the last ten years has brought to light the positive and lasting effects of mindfulness on the mind, body, and emotional response. The brain’s ability to rewire itself in relation to changes in behavior, environment, and thinking patterns—or brain plasticity—is heavily impacted by mindfulness practices.” So, when you find yourself losing the battle against willpower, take a moment to be in the moment. Feeling motivated? Keep it going by getting ready for tomorrow with these 18 Ways to Motivate Yourself for a Morning Workout