Can you train your willpower? A HealthCentral explainer

CRegal Editor
  • Obesity is a national epidemic, and its effects are reaching both the old and the young.  Childhood obesity is seen as a major problem and some obesity-related complications are being reported in adolescents.  The condition is a primary risk factor for a variety of other conditions, including heart disease, osteoarthritis, sleep problems, stroke, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.


    But instead of turning to a fad diet or weight loss pills or , in more extreme cases, surgery, is simple willpower an effective option for fighting obesity? Yes, genetics do play a role in obesity, but can people learn to strengthen their willpower?

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    Taking control


    According to new research from The Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center, people can take control over their willpower.  In fact, the Providence research center contends that people can even train their willpower, much like they would a muscle. 


    The results of the study may seem obvious: people with more willpower and self-control lost more weight, were more physically active, consumed fewer calories from fat and had better attendance at weight loss meetings than their counterparts who did not have strong willpower.  However, the study did not just use a person's baseline "willpower" and draw conclusions from that, Instead study participants were asked to practice acts of willpower to build up self-control.


    Willpower training


    Two studies led to these conclusions.  The first involved 40 participants in a six-month behavioral weight loss intervention, and involved weekly meetings with dieticians, behavioral psychologists and/or exercise psychologists.  All of those involved were put on a reduced calorie, low-fat diet and were encouraged to increase physical activity. 


    At the end, the participants were given a handgrip test, where the participant has to squeeze a grip for as long as possible.  The second study involved all of the same activities, except it measured the handgrip test at the beginning of the six-month intervention and again afterward. 


    What did they find?


    The studies found that those who had a 10 percent weight loss were able to perform better on the hand grip test than those who did not lose the weight.  Those who showed the biggest improvements in the handgrip test from the beginning to the end were also most likely to have lost the most amount of weight.  To the researchers, this signaled that self-control – either in the weight loss process or in the handgrip test – was malleable.

    The handgrip test required willpower to hold on for as long as possible; the person had to override the feelings of pain or muscle exhaustion to achieve the goal of holding onto the grip as long as possible.  Willpower at its finest: overriding the brain's natural inclinations to achieve a goal, even if it is uncomfortable. 


    The bottom line


    The researchers claim this is the first study to see if willpower can be built up, as if training physically.  Rather than simply trying to tackle all aspects of weight loss at once, it may be wise to ease into the process in order to build self-control "stamina" along the way.  Since there are a number of factors that affect  obesity, each aspect can be focused on and strengthened through the process. 


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    Every time you go to the gym when you don't want to, or attend a meeting when you'd rather stay home could also contribute to your ability to avoid eating an extra doughnut.  It sounds simple, but this approach could be  influential in addressing the obesity epidemic.



    Lifespan. (January 24, 2013). "Can you 'train' yourself to have more willpower?" ScienceDaily. Retrieved from­ /releases/2013/01/130124123545.htm.



Published On: February 25, 2013