Healthy Behaviors Strengthen Willpower

The need to engage in consistent healthy actions.

Posted Aug 14, 2012

I'm sure it is not news to anyone that we are in the midst of a public health crisis in this country.  And the major culprit in that health crisis is the failure of the American people to engage in a consistent fashion in healthy behaviors.  Poor diet and lack of regular exercise have created the health crisis.  The percentage of Americans who are overweight and obese has skyrocketed and with that an epidemic of cardiovascular problems and other disorders which, in large part, are preventable.  The adversity that we are facing many would say is self-induced.

So what role does willpower play in all of this?  Research would support the idea that limited willpower is a primary roadblock to maintaining a healthy weight.  This is especially true with children, with some of the research from the University of Pennsylvania suggesting that children with better self-control were less likely to become overweight as they transitioned to adolescence.

As we have discussed in previous blogs, the role of willpower depletion may also play a major role here.  We live in a society that tempts us many times each day with food and drink.  We often end up in situations where we have unlimited choices about what to eat or drink.  As in the previous blog, money and financial resources play a role.  Fresh produce costs more than those in a can of junk food.

So one might expect that by the end of the day, after being tempted repeatedly, our willpower may be sagging.  The extra helping of lasagna or a dessert after dinner may look very attractive. 

Some research has suggested that willpower depletion may be even more important than bad moods in contributing to our overeating and other bad choices we make regarding food. 

As indicated in a previous blog (4/12/12), our beliefs and our attitudes may buffer us to some degree from the effects of willpower depletion.  If we believe strongly in the concept of self-control and the importance of maintaining a strict diet, perhaps because  we might die prematurely if we do not, we may be more likely to be less affected by willpower depletion.

So what can be done with the knowledge that we have gained regarding willpower depletion and the issue of overeating and obesity?  Overeating behaviors are certainly complex, with numerous psychological and neurological underpinnings.  Many believe that stressing self-control and personal choice will stigmatize people with weight problems and make it unlikely that they will be motivated to lose weight.  And, indeed, it is the environment that we live in that constantly bombards us with ads for fast food and relatively cheap processed meals.  And we are bombarded with these messages 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Willpower depletion appears to also play a role in the abuse of other substances, such as tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs.  In one study, social drinkers who exercised self-control in a lab setting went on to drink more alcohol in a supposed “taste test” than subjects who didn’t previously dip into their willpower pool.  Other studies have supported these findings.  Exercising willpower in one setting may undermine our ability to resist temptation in another, perhaps unrelated area of our life.

These issues are complex, and as the old saying goes, “More research is needed.”  But at this point, it appears clear that willpower plays a role in overeating and our inability to stick with a diet.  Willpower depletion caused by an environment in which we are constantly tempted may be the major villain in this story.  It is also clear that learning the skills and the attitudes of self-control at an early age may help us in later years to make better choices regarding exercise, diet and the abuse of substances. 

For more information on willpower and the studies that were discussed in this blog, go to the American Psychological Association.  “What You Need to Know about Willpower, the Psychological Science of Self-control,” written by Kirsten Weir,