I don’t care how much you can bench press. It may not even matter how many sit-ups you can do. And don’t get me started on how many miles you biked this weekend.

That’s the mindset behind a new study published by researchers from The Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Center.

If you can train your willpower, you may be closest to better health of all.

The first part of their study, published online in Obesity Research and Clinical Practice, touted the powers of self-control.  Subjects who demonstrated more, lost more weight, were more physically active, ate fewer calories, even attended weight-loss meetings more. They were the proverbial teacher’s pets.

But where the study gets interesting is when they suggest that merely practicing, over and over, more attempts at will power can actually help train you to be better at it, says the lead author Tricia M. Leahey. In other words, it is like “building a muscle.”

So what are some ways you can start bulking up on your powers of self-control today? Here are 3 tips to make it easier:

Give yourself some time

Subjects in the study were followed for 6 months. But other research suggests it can take less time than that to turn a conscious behavioral change into a habit. The magic has been 21 days but new work has found it takes longer—to the tune of 66 days (about 2 months) to 254 days (yikes!). Come to think of it,six months may not look so long.

Even a tiny change can build willpower

Let’s say you’re not ready to run a 5K. Or cut your calories down 3,500 a week (the number it takes to lose just one lb.).  Or even to basically get off the couch on weekends. That’s workable, says the research. Making just one, teeny-tiny alteration, say, switching from bagel and cream cheese for breakfast to a high-fiber oatmeal, and being consistent with it—no matter how tempted you are to grab a donut—starts to flex the mind’s self-control muscle.

Join a group

Behavioral changes are most powerful when you have others for support—and to bear witness. Whether it is an online community, a local weight-loss group, a personal trainer or a hiking club, making yourself accountable to others does a lot in helping you strengthen your willpower too. The hard part just may end up being which one to join.

About the Author

Erinn Bucklan

Erinn Bucklan is a New York City-based journalist who writes regularly about nutrition, diet, food behavior, and fitness.

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