So you survived Thanksgiving, and are praying that the added cost of pumpkin pie + halloween candy + office parties + Christmas parties + New Year’s doesn’t totally derail your fitness or weight loss goals. Perhaps up until you turned comfort food corner, you’ve been doing real well.
In reality, if you intend to take off the weight and keep it off, Holiday season or not, you’ve got to be continually vigilant about the choices you make year round. And sometimes it seems that some of us have a way easier time than others being mindful about food or fitness choices on a regular basis, while others more easily succumb to temptation when faced with it (this tends to be worse during the Holidays when sweets and comfort foods are EVERYWHERE).
It’s not like these people are super-disciplined humans with no sense of smell for homemade chocolate chip cookies, but the one thing they probably have in common is willpower- the power to use discipline and self-awareness to make choices that steer them towards achieving their bigger goal, no matter what the occasion.
The good news is you can exercise your “willpower muscle” much like you exercise your muscles when you lift weights. The more you “train” your brain to either resist a temptation or make a positive choice, the easier and more natural the process becomes. If you stop and think about it, how many times have you been faced with a temptation and you hear two voices in your head battling it out?
And how many times have you “spent” your mental energy all day at work, resisting the urge to tell a complaining customer or boss to shove it, then come home and bury your sorrows in a cheesecake or a bottle of wine (or both!)? Perhaps you’ve exhausted your willpower muscle, and something has gone on in your head that either steers you to make the best choice for your diet/fitness goals or away from it.
So what are some simple exercises that you can do to build willpower, and cultivate the discipline to make sensible food choices?
1) Meditate. I’m not talking about anything woo-woo here; simply take 5 minutes to focus on the inhalation and exhalation of your breath without focusing on much else. This can be done 5 minutes before bed. Just be still. If you’re like me and have a hard time with that, engage in any sensory ritual that does calm you: listening to music, talking a bath, lighting candles and having some quiet time. 5 minutes won’t kill you.
2) When faced with a “temptation” or urge, wait 10 minutes before you actually give in. Chew gum, take a walk, do the dishes, brush your teeth, and otherwise solidly find a way to distract yourself from the urge to have another piece of cake that you really don’t need. The urge is most likely NOT biological (i.e., you don’t need to eat it to survive), and you’ll probably find the craving dissipate or disappear entirely.
3) Surround yourself with willpower “advocates,” or basically a support network of people who want to see you succeed and have habits that help them achieve their goal. We all have friends who seem to have more willpower than us, right? What is that they are doing that’s so special, and can we get them on our team?
4) If there’s a particular role model that you feel generally makes the best food choices, ask yourself, what would they do when faced with a temptation? The point of such an exercise is simply to create more of the self-awareness that’s necessary when controlling certain cravings; and to listening to the voice in your head that’s advocating for the slimmer, stronger you.
5) Imagine the behavior of a person or a group of people that you would NOT want to be part of. For instance, we all feel a twinge when watching those reality T.V. shows that showcases people so morbidly obese that they can barely get out of bed. While we ought to fairly consider that there might be something out of their control (genetics, or a metabolic condition or disease) that rendered them in that condition, what if it were a lifetime of poor choices and lack of willpower that got them there. Do you want to follow that path?
6) Go public with your willpower challenge or imagine someone you care about taking pride in your achievements. Social media makes things all the more possible here, so does joining online forums where you can find virtual cheerleaders. It’s also nice when your family’s got your back, and when they do, they will certainly take pride in watching you reach your goals.
7) Hire a diet coach, like yours truly. Email check-ins with someone who is actually paid to care and keep you accountable is an excellent option. It’s also the same reason why group weigh-ins at places like Weight Watchers are very successful. The practice of simply being accountable and taking stock of your food choices and honestly reporting them helps build self-awareness; which is important when you’re faced with your craving.
8) Track and identify your problem. As I mentioned early on, self awareness is key to building willpower. If you have no idea how you’re being triggered, you won’t be able to fix it. For instance, does a super stressful and long commute tend to cause you to make poor choices with food? Does drinking with your buddies lead to a late night binge? Does a long day at work mean you’re skipping another workout? What exactly, is the trigger that leads to the poor decisions with food and exercise?
9) Quietly listen to the dual voices in your head that you know are speaking to you when you’re faced with a temptation. Really ask yourself if the decision you ultimately pick will you steer you towards the long-term, bigger goal. Are you justifying a poor choice because you “deserve it,” and turn it around in a long-term mainframe, and ask “do I deserve to not fit into my pants in 2 months?”
10) When faced with a setback, allow yourself to fall as long as you get right back on track. The “damage” caused by eating one cookie is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But an entire box because you somehow blew your diet on ONE cookie is. It’s much easier to overcome a temptation when you actually allow for it, in a sense. That’s why treat meals/ cheat meals/ planned indulgences/ re-feeds/ carb-ups or “surplus days” are good things to include as part of your long-term strategy. It allows you to have what you’ve been missing or craving, and quickly move on.
11) Practice a task that forces you to make a mental effort to stop yourself in your tracks before you engage in a typical behavior. Something as simple as trying to use your left hand to open doors or pick up an object if you’re right-handed (and vice versa for lefties), will engage your brain in correcting an ingrained habit. So if you claim you can’t kill your “habit” of a daily supersized cola, you’ll at the very least begin to create the patterning of mental awareness for breaking a difficult habit.
12) Exercise and get outdoors. Even if it’s just 5 minutes of activity, getting outdoors and moving can reduce stress,, improve your mood, focus, and self-control. Plus, exercise is a critical building block to an overall picture of better health. One healthy habit will often generate others that can help build the discipline you need to achieve your fitness or weight loss goals.
Sumi Singh is an Austin-based personal trainer with nearly 2 decades of experience in fitness. She holds specializations in pre-and post natal fitness, group fitness, and sports nutrition. She’s the author of Stay at Home Strong, a complete workout program for new moms. She’s also an online diet coach, a busy single mom, has set various world, National and state records as a powerlifter, and holds an BSc from Tufts, and a Masters from Duke University.