The science of willpower: research supports the notion that willpower works like a muscle--so how do you train it?

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Author: Kelly McGonigal
Date: June 2008
From: IDEA Fitness Journal(Vol. 5, Issue 6)
Publisher: IDEA Health & Fitness
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,750 words

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What do the following acts have in common?

* choosing the healthy items at the breakfast buffet and ignoring the pastries and fried food

* smiling and saying, "Let's see if I can help you with that," when an angry client blows a minor issue into a major complaint

* sticking to a budget, even after your initial enthusiasm for improving your finances has waned, and the sale at your favorite store is beckoning

* staying on the treadmill for the time goal you set, even though each minute is a little harder than the last

Each of these acts requires willpower--the ability to ignore temporary pleasure or discomfort to pursue a longer-term goal. It's easy to agree that these challenges require inner strength, but where does that strength come from? And why is willpower such a fickle friend, supporting us on some occasions and abandoning us on others?

Fifteen years ago, Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, now a researcher at Florida State University, set out to answer these questions. He pitted several possible models of willpower against each other, and when the dust of his early studies settled, the results supported a surprising model. According to Baumeister, willpower is not a personality trait, a skill or a virtue. Instead, it operates like a muscle. And as such, it can be strengthened--but also easily exhausted (Baumeister 2003).

This "strength" model of willpower has important implications for fitness and wellness professionals who seek to inspire and support healthy behavior in others. By understanding how willpower can be strengthened, you can find new strategies for helping clients meet their goals. And by understanding why willpower is necessarily limited, you can identify ways of supporting behavior change without exhausting willpower.

A strength model of willpower proposes four important ideas:

1. Willpower is a mind-body response, not merely a mindset.

2. Using willpower depletes resources in the body.

3. Willpower is limited.

4. Willpower is trainable.

Let's consider each of these ideas; the evidence that supports them; and how they can be applied to health behaviors.

Willpower Is in the Mind and Body

Mind-body responses are coordinated physiological changes that allow you to adapt to some challenge. The best-known mind-body response is the fight-or-flight response to stress or danger--heart racing, blood pressure soaring, muscles tightening and senses heightened (Sapolsky 2004). The relaxation response, in contrast, allows the body to respond to its internal needs of digestion, growth and restoration (Benson 1975).

Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, was one of the first researchers v to study the biological basis of willpower. Segerstrom's research has begun to identify changes in the autonomic, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and immune systems during acts of willpower. Segerstrom says it's possible that these changes are part of a coordinated whole-body response that helps us adapt to challenges requiring self-control. She calls it a "pause and plan" response. This mind-body response would allow us to temporarily freeze our impulses and focus on our long-term goals.

What's going on in the body that helps us slow down and...

Source Citation

Source Citation
McGonigal, Kelly. "The science of willpower: research supports the notion that willpower works like a muscle--so how do you train it?" IDEA Fitness Journal, vol. 5, no. 6, June 2008, pp. 42+. Accessed 26 Sept. 2022.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A179816359