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Willpower for weight loss: A muscle to be exercised or a raging inner battle?

If you’ve ever been told willpower is the key to keeping your weight in check, the cheese does NOT stand alone. You are out there in a whole sea of cheese.


Blaming willpower (or lack thereof) for an inability to maintain a healthy weight is fairly common.


There seems to be a sense of failure that develops when we don’t exhibit willpower and prevail over our food “temptations”.  It’s as if every entry into the kitchen or office break room requires dawning battle gear or battening down the hatches.


Eventually this sense of failure gives way to guilt, which we tend to ironically attempt to soothe by consuming more of that which we seek to avoid.  And then that sense of failure comes right back around the corner to repeat the cycle.


But how do we break this cycle? Is it really as simple as one word: willpower?


Willpower: wimpy, wimpy or hefty, hefty


One school of thought is that willpower is like a muscle – you have to exercise it to give it strength and gusto.  This conclusion was drawn after a study published in 2009 by researchers at McMaster University in Ontario.  Participants were given an exercise program, but some were required to complete cognitive tests before exercising. They found that those who were tested first ultimately exercised with much less intensity and were more likely to skip a workout altogether.


The researchers went on to state that by exercising willpower it can improve. So if you approach each “willpower situation” one at a time and depart triumphantly, then ultimately your willpower will strengthen.  It’s like P90X for strength of will – without all the sweat and muscle t-shirts.


On the other hand, it’s also possible to exhaust your willpower.


So a long day at work, perhaps taking kids to and from school, and sitting in rush hour traffic for an hour – I’d say that’s a pretty mentally draining combination that leaves you with wimpy willpower when you hit the kitchen at home. Or urges a stop at the McDonald’s on the way!


Or is willpower symbolic of an inner battle?


Still, there are those that consider additional possibilities.  I recently heard a passage from a book on mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. He’s the founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.


Here’s the gist of the excerpt:


Saying we need willpower to overcome things (let’s say cake cravings) implies there is some inner battle going on. We haven’t really internalized or accepted this notion that we shouldn’t have the cake every night, so of course we have to fight that battle every time we see the gosh darn cake.  The cake is the enemy we hate to love.  (Please note – this isn’t about the occasional piece of cake. The cake is hypothetical for things in which we tend to overindulge).


What if we instead tried to change our thinking about the cake?

What if we took a step back and thought about why we go for the cake, or what that situation does to and for us?


This is a process that takes time.   It’s about changing habits, not just willing ourselves to overcome things in the moment.


So which is it: exercise the muscle, or mold your habits so you don’t need it as much?


I personally am a believer in a bit of both. Of course we need willpower; but I think it’s also worth exploring the motivation behind goals and actions and how we respond to that motivation as well. Does it help us? Or hinder us?


Consider the cake: what if a little self-analysis brought us to the conclusion that the cake was really an attempt to de-stress, but all it ever actually did was make us feel pretty logy? Would being mindful of this perhaps bolster our willpower or cause us to change how we de-stress?


Maybe mindfulness and willpower are like beginnings and endings.  It’s tough to have one without the other.

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