Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On willpower

A friend and former colleague of mine sent me a link to this post:

Do firm muscles equal firm willpower?

Across five studies, we show that firming one’s muscles can help firm willpower and firmed willpower mediates people’s ability to withstand immediate pain, overcome tempting food, consume unpleasant medicines, and attend to immediately disturbing but essential information, provided doing so is seen as providing long term benefits. We draw on theories of embodied cognition to explain our results, and we add to that literature by showing for a first time that our bodies can help firm willpower and facilitate self-regulation essential for the attainment of long-term goals.
First off, I think that's very cool, and it probably rings pretty true to anyone who does CrossFit. "Train not to suck at life"? Pushing your limits and getting physically stronger carries over to so many aspects of life, and really helps put things in perspective. It helps you deal with the hard stuff life throws at you.

I suspect the body-willpower connection in terms of "getting fit" is largely driven by seeing progress. When you can see progress, it keeps you on the path. But no matter how hard they try, people rarely see sustained progress! So most get frustrated and fall off the wagon.

I worry that in our culture, too much is made of willpower. When people fail at fitness and health goals, they blame themselves for not having enough willpower. I did this for a long time. I didn't start to make sustained progress until I made a radical shift in what I was doing. Before, I was eating a "healthy" (according to the ADA/USDA) low fat, whole grain diet and putting in hours running and doing moderate weight training (machines and that kind of thing). Then I switched to low carb, lots of protein, fat, and veggies, with no grains/dairy/legumes, plus short, high-intensity, strength/coordination-based training without the chronic cardio. And you know what? I don't really need willpower because I look forward to working out and I love the food I eat.

I think we get stuck in this idea that healthy has to mean suffering, but that's a relatively recent concept. It's in our genes to want to be active, play, sprint, lift heavy stuff, and eat meat and fat and maybe some berries once in a while, and get a ton of sleep. Just because our Puritan forefathers were malnourished neurotic masochists doesn't mean that we need to be. Look a little further back, to preagriculture days, to hunter-gatherer cultures. They ate lots of meat, lots of fat, worked every couple of days, played and socialized. There is no question which group I want to emulate. And guess what, the hunter-gatherers beat out the Puritans on every health metric (except possibly health consequences of chance meetings with large hungry predators).

So back to willpower. Yes, it takes a certain amount of discipline and commitment to change your diet, to start on a training program, to move from the couch and donuts to the gym and salads. But you also don't need to shun fat and flavor in favor of diet non-foods, you don't need to count calories, and you certainly don't need to slave away for hours a day on the treadmill. Getting healthy is a journey that should be fun and filled with joy and excitement - rediscovering what you're capable of and what it's like to feel good. If you sigh and resign yourself when decide it's time to get healthy again, maybe you need to try something different, something that comes naturally, something that doesn't require so much darn willpower.

No comments: