Limited Willpower Can Affect Your Workout
Study Shows Self-Control Comes in Limited Doses
WebMD News Archive
Sept. 25, 2009 -- You want to exercise. You know you should be
exercising more. But even though you up wake every morning committed to hitting
the gym or taking a long walk after work, your resolve is gone by the end of a
For some lucky people, exercise is second nature. For the rest of us it
Now new research suggests that one big reason people fail to follow through
on their exercise
plans is that they have used up their willpower on other tasks.
The study examined the theory that people have limited stores of
self-control, or willpower, in any given day.
Just like the money in your wallet, the theory goes, willpower is a finite
resource that can't be used on one thing if it is already spent on another.
"When you use self-control for other things -- like meeting a deadline at
work or resisting the temptation to eat a doughnut -- you deplete your pool of
self-control," exercise scientist Kathleen Martin Ginis, PhD, of McMaster
University tells WebMD. "We wanted to see how that impacted exercise."
Ginis and colleague Steven R. Bray, PhD, designed a laboratory experiment to
do just that and recruited 61 university students who were not regular
exercisers to take part.
The students were initially asked to work out on lab-based exercise
machines. Half the participants were then asked to perform a task, known as the
Stroop test, designed to deplete their willpower stores.
The test involved showing the students the words for colors printed in a
different color. For example, the word red might be printed in green ink and so
The students were told to say the color they saw, and resist the temptation
to say the color they were reading.
"It sounds pretty innocuous, but it definitely takes self-control to ignore
the written word," Martin Ginis says.
The students were then subjected to a second round of exercise, and, as the
researchers had suspected, those whose willpower had been challenged did not
work out with the same intensity as those who had not taken the test.
The willpower-challenged students also worked out less over the next eight
The study was published this week in the journal Psychology and
No Excuse to Stay on the Couch
So is there little hope for people who need willpower to exercise, but never
seem to have enough?
Not at all, Martin Ginis says.
"The good news is self-control is like a muscle, and the more it is flexed
the bigger it gets," she says. "The more you challenge yourself by doing things
like resisting that chocolate cake or resisting the urge to hit the snooze
button in the morning the more you build self-control."
Boston psychologist Eric Endlich, PhD, who specializes in motivating
patients to diet and exercise, tells WebMD
that having a plan for exercise can make all the difference.
Strategies recommended by Endlich and Martin Ginis include:
- Schedule exercise. Plan your exercise, including trips to the gym
and the classes you want to take, ahead of time and have everything ready to go
to avoid that 20-minute search for your running shoes. "If you've planned what you are doing
and have everything ready, you avoid the big debate with yourself about whether
you will do it or not," Endlich says.
- Get a trainer or an exercise buddy. Being accountable to someone
else is a great motivator.
- Get it over with. If you know you can't make yourself exercise after
an exhausting day, do it first thing in the morning.
- Get in a good mood. Studies suggest that people can muster more
self-control when they are in a good mood, Martin Ginis says. So listening to
music that makes you happy or watching something funny online could be just the
motivator you need.