One more reason to exercise: a willpower boost!

by Scott Crabtree

If you walk around the block for just five minutes, are you more likely to resist dessert at lunch, stay focused on a difficult task, or resist yelling at a colleague? Can you exercise your way to better self-control and will power?

If you’ve heard me present or read some of the books I recommend, you likely know that physical activity is good for your mood and cognitive ability, as well as your physical health. Exercise is ultimately as effective as anti-depressants in treating depression.

Growing evidence suggests that physical activity boosts your willpower, too.

In a 2006 study by Oaten and Cheng, participants were given free gym memberships and personalized training programs. Those study participants who regularly exercised also improved various behaviors that require willpower, such as eating better, reducing substance abuse, and controlling spending.

Multiple other studies support the finding that exercise boosts willpower. While scientists aren’t certain of the mechanisms yet, exercise seems to help with both heart rate variability and glucose control, both of which seem to be important body mechanisms involved with self-control.

The data we have so far suggests you don’t need to be running marathons to gain willpower. Exercising for just five minutes has shown to be beneficial, if it’s a regular program. What kind of exercise? Whatever kind you will do! It doesn’t seem to matter much if it’s running on a treadmill, lifting weights while on a phone call, or going for a walk during a one-on-one meeting.

As with any change you want to make, if you want to add exercise to your life, it will help if you decide ahead of time when and where you will do it. If you decide in advance that you’ll lift weights during phone calls, you are more likely to follow through. Similarly, if you want to walk to work in the morning, getting your walking clothes and shoes ready to go and by your bed the night before helps you follow through in the morning.

Of course, you need a bit of willpower to start exercising. But exercising can be as little as walking around the block to start. When you start, you are on the path to boosting your willpower.

Stronger willpower can help you act on other intentions you have to boost your happiness and therefore your brain function. So get that virtuous cycle started, whether it’s on a bicycle, walking to work, or just parking farther from the door to your office.

For more insights on willpower, I recommend the book by by Kelly McGonigal, PhD:
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It.

What’s working–or not working–for you, when it comes to exercise and willpower? I’d love to hear your thoughts?