Exercise and the Art of Self-control
For me, knowing that regular exercise mediates daily stress and helps me steal one hour per day all for myself is enough to get me to the gym 4 to 5 days a week. Sometimes I run and do yoga; sometimes I do the elliptical trainer, lift weights and stretch—but I know I’m going to do it. Steady as a rock. As an exercise physiologist and fitness instructor, my colleagues and I have been touting exercise as the litmus test for self-control and continuous motivation over the course of a lifetime.
We generally think that, having a semblance of self-control, one is more likely to adhere to exercise. Recent research from neuroscientists are now considering the possibility that exercise itself chemically increases your feelings of self-control to help you lose weight and keep exercising. 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?