Diet & Exercise Essentials

The Role Willpower Plays in Weight Loss and How You Can Develop Your “Weight Loss Muscle”

The Role Willpower Plays in Weight Loss and How You Can Develop Your "Weight Loss Muscle"

How many times have you heard people say they can’t lose weight because they have no willpower? There’s little doubt that willpower plays a role in controlling your weight. Willpower is the thing that helps you turn down a fresh-baked, chocolate chip cookie and reach for an apple instead – and it’s the thing that helps you fight the urge to take a nap when it’s time to work out. You might think of willpower as something you’re born with and not something you can develop. Not necessarily so. A new study shows that will power is something you can build much like you can strengthen a muscle by exercising it. That’s good news if you think you come up “short” in the willpower department.

The Power of Willpower

In a recent study, researchers at the Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center found a link between willpower and success at losing weight. Based on a study they carried out at their center, they found that participants who had more self-control and willpower were more successful at losing weight. No big surprise here. What’s more interesting is that some participants were able to boost their willpower over the course of the six month study.

How did the researchers measure willpower? They used a handgrip test to measure it in this study. Participants were asked to squeeze a handgrip as long as they could while they were exposed unpleasant stimuli including pain. Just as it takes self-control to resist noshing on a high-calorie treat, it takes willpower to hold a grip when it’s uncomfortable or painful. They found those who were able to hold their grip longer were more successful at losing weight.

The take-home message from this study is that self-control and willpower are good traits to have when you’re trying to lose weight or get into shape, but you don’t have to be born with willpower of steel. Each time you force yourself to “do the right thing” like exercise when you don’t feel like it and skip dessert when it’s not a “cheat meal,” you establish brain pathways that make it easier to make the right choice the next time.

Willpower is Only One Factor

According to the American Psychological Association, willpower is just one part of the equation for achieving success at weight loss or changing a habit. First you have to have the desire to change. The participants in this study all demonstrated that desire by enrolling in a structured weight loss program. Then you have to set a clear and definable goal. It’s best to have an overall goal that you break down into smaller goals to achieve within set time periods. Then you have to document your behavior toward reaching that goal. That means keeping a weight loss and fitness journal to record and monitor your progress to stay accountable. Finally, there’s the willpower and self-control factor.

Tips for Strengthening Willpower

One of the most effective ways to exercise your self-control and willpower “muscles” is to begin with small tasks. If you’re trying to stop snacking at night, start by cutting the size of your snack in half. When you don’t feel like exercising, tell yourself you’ll work out for ten minutes and see how you feel. Chances are you’ll keep going once you’re warmed up. Every time you push yourself to do something you don’t want to do or say no to something that’s not good for you, the more you strengthen your mental willpower muscle.

Lighten Up Sometimes

Just as you need a rest day when you’re building muscle, let down your guard occasionally by having a cheat meal or cheat dessert. An occasional cheat meal or treat is like a rest day for your “muscles of self-control.” It can help you come back with even more resolve. Just don’t do it too often and lose all of the progress you’ve made.

The Bottom Line?

Think you don’t have willpower? Then flex your willpower muscle more, but don’t completely exhaust it. Give yourself an occasional splurge just as you give yourself a rest day from exercise.



Medical News Today. “Training Yourself to Have More Willpower”

American Psychological Association. “What You Need to Know about Willpower”

The Miriam Hospital. “Can You “Train” Yourself to Have More Willpower?”


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