What Do Willpower and Motivation Mean In Terms of a Healthy Lifestyle?

What do Willpower and Motivation Mean In Terms of a Healthy Lifestyle?

By Lori Gardiner, MS, RD, LDN

 Many of us, throughout our lifetime, have felt like we have not had enough willpower to follow through with a healthy diet or exercise program.  You may have thought to yourself, “If only I had more willpower”.  Once you understand the true meaning of willpower, you may be able to focus your attention on the right things to help you achieve your goals or skip that second piece of pie.  The American Psychological Association defines willpower as the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.  The good news is that willpower is not based on genetics and we can all strengthen our own over time.  Our willpower, on a daily basis, is limited.  With each struggle that you face, your “piggy bank” of willpower diminishes.  A hard day at work can limit your ability to meet your goals of hitting the gym later in the day.  Feelings, heavy decision-making and stress all affect willpower.  Willpower is something that comes and goes.  It can be gone when you need it the most and counting on willpower alone is, simply, not enough.  In my opinion, willpower is given way too much credit.  For example, are you expected to make good food choices at dinner when you have reached your ultimate hunger point?  That is a tough position to be in.  This is where snacking can really bite into our calorie allotment for the day.  If you have healthy foods available that can be prepared or reheated in a reasonable time for dinner, you are much more likely to choose the right foods and avoid empty calorie snacks.  I like to focus on the strategies that will help your willpower improve.  Eventually, you won’t even think of whether or not you have willpower, because your strategies will help you to avoid that critical moment.  Pre-plan as much as you can to avoid having to count on willpower alone.  For example, if you know that you are hungry for a snack at the same time everyday at work, bring a healthy snack with you to avoid the vending machine.  Always think ahead for difficult situations.  Another example is if you know you typically run late in the morning and run out of time to eat breakfast, have a healthy option that you can grab as you are heading out of the door.  Using small strategies on a regular basis is the best way to boost your willpower long-term.  Once these strategies become habit, your willpower will automatically become stronger.  Also, the more good choices you make, the easier it is to pass up sweets, junk food, etc. that come your way. 

So, let’s talk about exercise and willpower.  First of all, think in terms of your body ruling your mind.  If we listened to what our mind was telling us, we would exercise a lot less than we intend to.  “Don’t think. Just do.”  Your body is sending you messages all of the time.  The messages that are deep within your core are the ones you want to listen to.  There really is truth to your “gut feeling.”  Try not to over-analyze what needs to be done.  In the words of Nike’s tagline, “Just Do It”!  It can be helpful when starting a new workout regimen to just put your workout clothes on without giving much thought to it.  You are much more likely to follow through with your plan if you’re dressed and ready to go.  The less mind games and negative self-talk that you let “win”, the more likely you will be to accomplish your goals.  Listen to your core, not the interference that is floating around in your brain.

What is motivation and how crucial is it to accomplish goals?  Motivation can be defined as the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.  It can also be the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.  Clearly, it is better to be motivated than not to be.  Motivation can increase your desire to take action. It gets you excited, and it is leaves you with a positive mindset.  However, you do not have to be motivated to take action.  Healthy eating and exercise habits far outweigh the importance of motivation and willpower, for that matter.  Motivation is not reliable because it is based on how you feel.  The problem with feelings is that they are unpredictable and can change for no reason.  Taking action first is the best means for self-motivation.  When you take action first before you count on your mind to motivate you, your mind will follow.  It is best to use motivators for the big picture, not for everyday goals.  For example, focus on important long-term health reasons on why you should eat right and exercise.  Visualize what type of quality of life you want in your later years.  It is proven that a healthy diet and physical activity promote disease prevention and the ability to be more active later in life.  Every little bit helps.  The less you move now, the less you will be able to move later.  As for your dietary plan, the healthier it is now, the healthier you will be later.  Maintaining a healthy body weight decreases our risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.  Right off the bat, those are pretty big motivators for following a healthy lifestyle.                                       

The common component when discussing both willpower and motivation is neither are predictable or reliable.  Willpower and motivation will, more than likely, fail you when you are stressed, feeling blue or just plain tired.  The real “motivator” to a healthy lifestyle is the long-term habits that you must form to achieve it.  It takes 21 days to form a habit.  Once it is a habit and you take your mindset out of the equation, you are more likely to follow through in your goals.  Don’t think. Just act.

Remember to not get caught up in the “all or nothing” mindset for eating healthy or exercise.  A healthy lifestyle is forever.  There is no throwing in the towel.  Some days are good, and some days are not.  As long as you are learning and improving your strategies to keep your willpower and motivation in check, then you’ve got this!  Plain and simple, the more you start to exercise, the more you will continue to exercise.  The more you begin to resist the cookie, the more you will continue to resist the cookie.  Habits will form, and you won’t even consider not exercising or eating that leftover cake for breakfast. 

Diets Don't Work!

If we put as much time and energy into our long-term weight management goals as we do into “quick-fix, fad diets” we would all be successful!

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