Kinected: On the topic of willpower

There are ways to improve self-control and willpower.

Kinected: On the topic of willpower

Maintaining new fitness routines can require significant self-control, but what we don’t often realize is that our willpower is already being challenged frequently every day, and after sufficient effort, we lose the ability to sustain it.

But there are ways to improve self-control and willpower.

People often think that self-control or willpower is something you only use sporadically, such as when you are tempted by something that is counter to your long-term interests. But instead, research indicates that the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting temptations, as well as controlling emotions and making decisions. Every day, people resist impulses, to sleep-in or eat unhealthy foods.

A further complicating factor is that willpower behaves like a muscle in a few ways.

First, it fatigues the more it is used throughout a day, making it harder to exercise self-control later.

Second, it is influenced by the amount of glucose in your system.

Glucose is the fuel for your brain.

A number of studies show that tasks requiring self-control and decision making use up available glucose and, consequently, the strength of willpower in turn is adversely affected.

It also appears that a period of intense exercise (that burns up a large amount of glucose) ends up impairing a mental task undertaken immediately after the physical exertion.

So willpower fatigues the more it is used, just like a muscle.

However, just like a muscle, willpower can be strengthened over time.

You can make improvements by doing exercises, such as meditation or mindfulness, keeping a food or exercise diary, correcting posture or speech, using your non-dominant hand for things such as opening doors and using keys. All  will help to strengthen willpower for activities, such as making good food choices or exercising regularly.

Some practical benefit of knowing how willpower works can be implemented by shopping for good food choices earlier in the day instead of in the evening, when blood glucose levels might be lower or decision-making already fatigued.

Another strategy might be to choose to exercise at lunch or right after work, instead of later in the evening, when mental fatigue may be at its maximum.

In sports training, there are drills that athletes use to sharpen their decision-making ability under fatigued conditions. One such drill involves performing a high intensity sprint (in order to lower blood glucose levels and increase lactate) followed by performing a mental exercise using spatial and numerical matching or manipulation.

After repeated bouts of this exercise, the athlete’s ability to stay mentally sharp and make accurate decisions is increased.

This can be important when fatigue sets in later in a game situation – the athlete is more likely to maintain self-control in sticking with a game strategy or to not retaliate to an opponent and take a costly penalty.

Athletes often seem like they have an incredible amount of willpower to maintain rigorous training and practice schedules, eat well and exert high levels of physical effort every week.

But this high level of self-control was created through years of practice and is self-reinforcing.

Be careful, – leaving yourself in a constant state of mental fatigue can be detrimental, just like it can for muscles.


– Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology

and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology.


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