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Seven Ways to Beat a Lack of Willpower for Healthy Eating and Exercise

by Joanne Henson(more info)

listed in weight loss, originally published in issue 218 - November 2014

So you’ve decided to start eating healthily and exercising. You want to lose a few pounds, tone up, have more energy and feel better about yourself. And this time it will be different…. if only you can maintain enough willpower to stick with it. Sound familiar? And then your willpower wanes and you start beating yourself up for being weak and giving in to temptation and then give up…. again. Does this also sound familiar?

We generally think that willpower is like a muscle which needs to be worked, strengthened, and constantly flexed. But it’s much more helpful to think of it as a state of mind which is constantly changing as a result of your physical and emotional environments.  If you concentrate on changing some of the environmental factors rather than on flexing a mental muscle which doesn’t really exist, you’ll reduce the amount of pressure you feel you need to put on yourself.

Excuse Books Eating and Getting Fit

Here are my top seven ways in which you can change your environment and the way you think about food and exercise so that in future you don’t have to rely so heavily on willpower to reach those health and fitness goals:

  1. You only need willpower during times of temptation. If you’re not being tempted, then you don’t need willpower. So consider how you can remove temptation from any environments which you can control. Start with your own home and your office space. If you don’t want to find yourself eating crisps out of boredom in front of the TV in the evening, don’t have crisps in the house. If you don’t want to find yourself eating a whole packet of chocolate biscuits at your desk, buy individually wrapped ones, one at a time. Then it doesn’t matter if you feel you have no willpower - you won’t need it, as there’ll be nothing to tempt you;
    Consider other situations where you can easily remove temptation. If you’re tempted by the bread basket when you’re eating out, ask your friends to put it at the other end of the table, out of your reach. If your friends don’t want the temptation either, ask the server to take it away. If when you visit your parents’ house they always bring out a plate of biscuits or cakes, ask in advance for fruit instead. What’s your own personal temptation and what can you do to remove it from view or place it further out of reach?
  2. Be aware that many salty and sugary foods are purposely formulated to be moreish. Remember the old slogan for Pringles, “Once you pop you can’t stop”? Pringles are essentially salty, refined carbohydrate (i.e. sugar) and that slogan said it all - you’re meant to keep eating them until they’re gone. And you’re meant to find them so irresistible that the next time you go shopping you buy more. The problem isn’t you, it’s the food. So ditch the guilt, but ditch these foods too. Know that you are never going to be able to flex that imaginary mental muscle enough to eat them in moderation, so keep them for a very occasional treat;
  3. If you do eat a sugary or high carbohydrate snack or meal (and that includes many low calorie, low fat foods), don’t be surprised if shortly after you’ve eaten it your energy levels slump and your mind turns to food again - the food you just ate will have given you a blood sugar spike followed by a blood sugar low, which then causes cravings. Those cravings aren’t a lack of mental muscle, but a physical condition. So try to avoid meals and snacks which are mainly carbohydrate and choose foods which have a good proportion of protein and good fats; these will give you a more prolonged, steady supply of energy and most importantly no extreme blood sugar peaks and troughs, so you won’t be craving more one hour later;
  4. If you’re trying to stick to an exercise regime, make it as pleasant as possible for yourself. If you put on some tired old leggings and a washed-out tee shirt, you’ll feel tired and washed-out when you’re out running or looking at yourself in a gym mirror. You won’t look forward to exercising if that’s how it makes you feel. Invest in some well-fitting kit in appealing colours - you’ll enjoy wearing it and you’ll feel so much better about yourself when you’re exercising.  If you go running and like to listen to music make sure you’ve got your most uplifting music on your iPod;
    And understand that exercise does not have to be painful, boring or unpleasant. Exercise shouldn’t feel like a punishment. So if you don’t like running - don’t go running. If you find your gym intimidating - try a different gym or get outside instead. Exercise should be energising, enjoyable and satisfying, so get imaginative and try something new - Zumba, hiking, dance, cycling, martial arts, swimming - the list is endless. One of my clients switched from following DVD workouts at home, which she hated and therefore struggled to ever get around to doing, to regular visits to a tango club, which she loves, and now never skips. When you find something you enjoy, it won’t feel like a chore, and you’ll be much more likely to stick with it.
  5. Make sure you fully commit to your plans. Take note of the language you’re using - when you say “I’m going to try to go to the gym three times this week” you’ve already given yourself a get-out clause by using the word “try”. Commit to your plans by removing that word, and then tell others what you intend to do.  It’s always easier to let yourself down than it is to let others down, so make a commitment to go running or do a dance class with a friend who will expect you to show up. Be that person who follows through and does what they say they are going to do!
  6. Speaking of friends, endeavour to surround yourself with supportive and positive people. If your friends are constantly trying to tempt you to eat what they know you don’t want to eat, and try to persuade you to go to the pub rather than the gym, then you’re going to struggle to stick with your plans. If your partner is constantly ordering takeaways and inviting you to share, you’re going to struggle to refuse every time. Ask for support from your friends, partner and family and they should be happy to give it;
  7. Understand that healthy living does not have to be 100% perfect. No one can be 100% perfect, and life would be pretty boring if you were. Aim for 80-90% healthy, and don’t beat yourself up for having an occasional treat.

Being kinder to yourself in this way will have a positive effect on your long term results. Accept that it’s OK to have an occasional treat and you’ll be less likely to throw in the towel after a moment of indulgence, because you won’t have broken any self-imposed and overly-restrictive rules. If you love cake, know that it’s OK to have a piece every so often if the rest of your diet is good. If you enjoy a glass of wine, know that that’s OK as long you’re consistently nourishing your body with healthy food.

Once you give yourself permission to have an occasional treat you eradicate the guilt and maximize the pleasure. Eating a bar of your favourite chocolate or slice of pizza without a side order of guilt will make it so much more enjoyable. Savour it, embrace the pleasure it’s giving you and know that it’s not the end of your healthy intentions. Pleasure is a nutrient too.

So, the next time you find yourself feeling guilty about having no willpower; give yourself a break. Accept that willpower isn’t quite what it seems. Expend your energy on developing a different approach to eating and exercise instead, and make some changes to your environment. Remove the temptations (particularly the foods which have been specifically designed to break your resolve), make exercise as enjoyable as possible and commit fully to your plans. Add supportive friends and the occasional guilt-free treat to that mix and you have a recipe for success which doesn’t involve an imaginary mental muscle.


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About Joanne Henson

Joanne Henson is a health and weight loss coach, specialising in helping people with a history of failed diets and fitness regimes to change their relationship with food and exercise for good. From unhealthy beginnings she overcame her own obstacles and now motivates and inspires others to become the healthier, leaner, happier people they’ve always wanted to be. Joanne is the author of What’s Your Excuse For Not Eating Healthily? and What’s Your Excuse For Not Getting Fit? Both are available on Amazon in Paperback and Kindle format. Joanne may be contacted on Mob: 07985 476 076;   Follow Joanne on Twitter: @Joannemh and @whats_yr_excuse

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