If you’ve faltered on your New Year's fitness resolutions, here’s how to get your willpower back up.
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It has been weeks since you vowed to compensate for overindulgence during the holidays, but you’re already faltering – at least that’s the case for 80 percent of Americans, according to 2008 research by Franklin Covey. The most popular New Years resolutions are to improve weight control and fitness, and yet they are the least likely to succeed, arguably due to a lack or misuse of willpower. So where does willpower go and how can you regain it?
According to Roy Baumeister, a renowned social psychologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (updated and reprinted in August 2012), we just need to strengthen our willpower “muscle.”
Humans have a limited supply of willpower, Baumeister asserts, and most of it is exhausted through resisting temptation. “Your body may have dutifully reported to work on time, but your mind can escape at any instant through the click of a mouse or a phone,” he says. “You can do enough damage in a 10-minute online shopping spree to wreck your budget for the rest of the year.”
The same applies to fitness. Pre-workout proximity to fast food or Facebook invites temptation, which we surrender to about 50 percent of the time. Even if you resist, your resolve will have diminished. Better to dodge these temptations altogether by planning healthy meals in advance and saving social media for post-exercise.
In one of Baumeister’s studies, hungry college students attempted puzzles after eating radishes, chocolate, fresh-baked cookies or a combination of the three. The radish-only group exhibited the most signs of temptation and were the first to give up. The chocolate and cookie eaters, fueled up with sugar and not distracted by temptation, persevered. This is one reason why dieters fail, says Bauemeister: You need willpower to lose weight, and to have willpower you must eat—particularly carbohydrates.
This doesn’t mean carbo-loading, but balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals. “You’re better off eating foods with a low glycemic index,” says Baumeister, such as nuts, vegetables, fruits and unprocessed grains. These glucose sources promote lasting satiation and self-control.
Protein encourages lasting resolve by keeping your blood sugar stable. “Starting your day with a high-protein breakfast can curb your appetite at later meals and help you stay alert and energized,” says Joy Bauer, TODAY Show nutrition expert and New York Times bestselling author. Restricting carbs or calories, conversely, facilitates derailment. Bauer suggests pairing protein-rich foods, such as yogurt or eggs, with healthy carbs, such as fruit or oatmeal, every morning. Avoid pastries. Your healthy routine will gradually minimize those cravings.
Although research points both ways, goal-sharing can help. StickK, a company initiated by Yale economics professor Dean Karlan, helps people reach wellness goals by instilling accountability and incentive. “A Commitment Contract obliges you to achieve your goal within a particular time-frame,” according to StickK.com. “Not only are you challenging yourself by saying, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ you’re also putting your reputation at stake. If you are unsuccessful, we’ll let your friends know about it.” If you’re successful, you don’t owe the company a dime. If not, your fee goes to your most-loathed charity. The leading choice to date is the George W. Bush Presidential Library.
Shoot for the wellness moon and you may land in a black hole. “A common mistake people make is setting lofty, unrealistic weight loss goals,” says Bauer. “It’s important to set reasonable expectations so you don’t set yourself up for disappointment.” People who lose weight gradually (up to two pounds per week) are most successful, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And rapid loss poses risks, including a slowed metabolism and eventual weight gain. If you’re sedentary, start with brisk walks—not triathlons.
For many, poor eating habits and inactivity symptomize deeper problems. “Logic can help us find a direction we’d like to travel, but actually having a successful trip cannot be achieved by willpower,” says clinical psychologist Jan Harrell. “If we don’t have a deeper understanding of what makes us illogical, we will lose the battle.” Looking inward goes far toward heightened understanding, as can talking matters out with a trusted friend or therapist. Addressing what lies beneath won’t magically make you fit, but it can make healthy lifestyle shifts manageable and accessible willpower a near given.
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