Exercise Your Willpower

We generally tend to think that those of us with a semblance of self-control are more likely to adhere to an exercise regimen. Recent research from neuroscientists now introduces the possibility that exercise itself chemically increases your feelings of self-control to help you lose weight and keep exercising. In other words, working out builds your willpower.

Adopting the fitness habit may prove to be one of the best coping strategies human beings have for cultivating willpower. They fuel each other, say researchers at the University of Exeter, England, who put 25 chocoholics through a stress test to judge how much exercise boosts self-control. All 25 participants were asked not to eat chocolate for three days, which previous research showed actually increases your cravings. (That’s why diets rarely work—if something is off-limits, you consciously and then unconsciously crave it that much more.)

At the lab, half the UK participants walked briskly on a treadmill for 15 minutes while the other half waited for the remainder of the testing protocols in a conference room. All participants had blood drawn and tests performed, and researchers found: Those participants who exercised for only 15 minutes showed smaller blood pressure increases and still did far better on self-control tests afterwards.

Lead author of this small study, physiologist Kate Janse Van Rensburg, M.S., says cardiovascular exercise reduced chocolate cravings significantly, even when participants were urged to eat a candy bar right after. “A single session of exercise can actually reduce the power of temptation…. [D]aily exercise might help change behavioral processes as well. We recommend consistent exercise as a coping strategy for stress and reducing food cravings when you begin any kind of diet.”

The data confirms that common chemical processes produced during exercise effects the brain chemicals that help to regulate mood and cravings.

“The biggest emotional difference in gaining will power is seen within the first five minutes of exercise,” says lead researcher Jo Barton, Ph.D., of the University of Exeter. This indicates that any activity—even a short walk—will have immediate positive health outcomes. Motivating an overweight person into even 10 minutes of walking per day may fall short of actual health and fitness health benefits, but this brief burst of activity may be enough to help her stick with exercise in the long run and may shift their willpower forever, says Dr. Barton.

What do you do to boost your own will power?

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Nicole Dorsey Straff

Nicole Dorsey Straff

Nicole Dorsey, M.S. is a travel and wellness expert who earned a Master’s Degree in the health sciences while writing and editing for industry giants, such as The New York Times, Fitness Magazine and Aol.com. Her true passion is adventure travel and her spa reporting has taken her all over the world.
Nicole Dorsey Straff

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