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home : health : health December 13, 2017


12/5/2017 1:57:00 PM
Willpower will fail you this holiday season
By Andrew Loscutoff


Willpower won't save a diet or fitness program this holiday season

Many understand that in order to succeed in health and fitness goals, diet needs to be in order, and they're going to need to exercise on a very frequent basis. This needs to be consistent over a period of months. It's a a hard journey, especially this time of year; tempting foods, familial obligations, and celebratory beverages spin a web of inescapable indulgence.

Those of us seeking better health and fitness often rely on willpower. We hope to say no to all the tempting treats, exercise every day in the cold dark morning, and the family won't stand in our way. That's the hope; it usually doesn't play out that way. This leads to shame and frustration and the vow that when the New Year comes, things will be different.

Why does willpower falter this time of year? It's not as if people don't recognize what's happening, or they don't put forth the effort to curb the slide. What usually happens is a condition called willpower fatigue.

Willpower is not a finite resource. Like a muscle, it can fatigue, and once exhausted there needs to be a rebound in order to get back to full strength. In the holiday season, it's as if this system is being asked to run a marathon while only at 10k-level fitness. You simply cannot continue to say no to temptation without having willpower drain, just as the casual runner cannot tackle a marathon without some time training.

Stress and other circumstances play a role in the willpower drain. Consider a study where researchers asked people to remember a random seven-digit or a two-digit number. Some time later they were asked if they wanted cake or a piece of fruit for their participation. The people who were required to remember a seven-digit number were twice as likely to choose the cake!

The mechanism behind this is our prefrontal cortex - an area of the brain that processes our day-to-day reactions, tasks, and thoughts. The system is always busy. When it's asked to do more, it cannot continue to add on processes before it gets bogged down. This bogging leads to decision-making impairment and lack of clarity when faced with the choice between a cupcake and a carrot.

We'll all too often make the decision for immediate gratification, rather than forgoing the pleasure.

How do you remain on the straight edge and not fill yourself up with pie, cookies, and fondue? Adjust expectations, avoid radicalism, and accept that schedules will have to adjust. Falling off the cart doesn't have to happen, and keeping in touch with the overall goal will be important.

Don't try to eliminate your favorite foods. Instead, regulate them to a much smaller amount or, pick a few favorites. When trying to eliminate everything, especially when so many other friends, family, and coworkers are enjoying them can be a huge drain on willpower. Plus, explaining to grandma why you aren't eating her pie is never an easy task.

Just show up. With holiday travel, family being around, or expectations of time away from the gym can be overbearing. A simple tip can be to just do something. Any workout, no matter how brief, is better than no workout. A walk before family is up is great, not only for a light workout, but can also provide a moment of solitude and mental respite from family time.

Keep your intentions pure. Stay in touch with why you choose to eat well and exercise the other 11 months out of the year. Likely it is because of the good feeling, the energy, and the general wellness it provides. Not to say that enjoying a gluttonous family gathering doesn't provide some good feelings, but this often leads to shame and resentment in later weeks. A strong connection to long-term goals - and a dose of self-compassion - will lead to better motivation to stick with it for the long haul.

The holidays don't have to unravel all the progress we have made in changing our habits and continuing a healthy lifestyle. Willpower won't be anyone's savior. Just acknowledge that it's OK to indulge, use spare time for short workouts, and mixing awareness with self-compassion are tools one can employ to beat the willpower trap and continue to thrive through the holiday season.









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