Thursday, July 12, 2012

Maintaining Control

It can be very difficult to choose healthy behaviors in a world that is constantly tempting you with sugary, salty, fatty, super-sized food, and addictive, sedentary activities like watching t.v. and playing electronic games. How many times have you thought, “If I just had more willpower I could finally ______” (lose weight? get my blood pressure under control? see the abs Brooke keeps yelling about in Zumba class?). It may not just be a matter of trying harder; you’ve got to try smarter.

According to research conducted by Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, willpower acts like a muscle; the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. We exercise it every time we, “ignore temporary pleasure or discomfort to pursue a longer-term goal.” (IDEA Fitness Journal, March 2009)  But it also fatigues just like our physical muscles.  So every time we deny ourselves in the present situation, we are depleting our resources and increasing our chances of losing control later. And since we have to exercise our willpower muscle a gazillion times a day, we risk losing control a lot. Here’s one example; this is what would go through my head if I was walking around a mall:
“Oooooh, those shoes are so cute and they’d look great with so many of my sundresses, but they’d probably hurt as soon as I stood in them so I will have to stick to sad looking orthopedic shoes for my screwed up feet. Oooooh, if I had a smaller iPod it would be so much easier to choreograph my Zumba routines when my family is trying to find out who’ll be the next to be Chopped, but I’ll just have to deal with my big iPod classic floppin’ around on my arm. And Oooooh, there’s a silver sequin fedora just like Makayla keeps asking for and she really would look soooooooooo cute in it, but she’d probably lose it as soon as she walked out of the door and really, who needs to spend $25 on a fedora for a 7 year old? And seriously, could those Cinnabons smell any better? But they have gluten and are about a gazillion Points Plus so it’s not worth it. And geez I really wish I still had my Hot Dog On A Stick uniform because it would be the greatest Halloween costume.”  (yes, I really did work there, and yes, I really did wear the hat).

And then I see it; the beautiful black letters on an illuminated white sign. My Weight Watchers leader, Suzanne, talks about insane things like going into See’s Candies and buying ONE piece of chocolate and then walking out. What? I am a binger. Like, a champion binger. If bingeing was an Olympic sport, I’d be on my way to London. So if I step through that door, I will be having my own little orgy with a pound of California Brittle, Molasses Chips and Milk Chocolate Bordeaux.

This scenario is why you won’t find me at the mall unless somebody gives me a gift card that can’t be used online. You have to control your environment as much as possible. As much as possible, you must plan and prepare so that you don’t have to make a lot of choices in the situation. If you’re going to a work meeting and you know they’ll have tons of treats, bring a healthy alternative to share. If you know all of your friends are going to ask you to go out for drinks on Friday, preempt them by asking them to do something active like going for a walk or a taking a dance class. Have healthy snacks in your home so that those Cheetos you bought “for the kids” don’t make their way into your belly.

This leads to the next point:  pick your battles.  If those Cheetos or the ice cream in the freezer are constantly calling to you, maybe you need to get them out of the house completely. But maybe your family’s reaction to removing treats is more stressful to you than walking by the pantry and telling yourself, “no Cheetos”. You need to figure out for yourself how to control your environment and which battles you are capable of fighting now. Don’t try to control or change every behavior at once. I will deal with this more in another post, but for now, try to prioritize and choose the most important times to flex your willpower muscle.

Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, prepare, and prioritize, you will still slip up. On Sunday, I was at an event celebrating my grandparents’ 65th wedding anniversary (you read it right folks, 65 years). I knew there would be a lot of yummy treats since the women in my family are all incredibly talented cooks, especially when it comes to desserts. I planned ahead.  I had a healthy breakfast, and even brought a nut bar so I’d have a snack if I got hungry. My willpower muscle had been taxed a lot that weekend and it finally cried “Uncle”.  As I’ve already said, I’m a binger. The issues in this situation were compounded by the fact that everything there had gluten in it (I am "sensitive" to gluten). So my oh-so-smart brain said, “If I’m going to break from my eating plan AND have a gluten hangover the next two days, I’m going to make it worthwhile!” I ate like it was my last meal on earth. I can’t even begin to estimate how many Points Plus it was. And the gluten hangover was monumental; I could hardly function Monday afternoon. Now, I could have walked away from that thinking “I am so weak. I’ll never get this bingeing thing under control. I’m just not someone who can control what I stuff in my face and I’ll never be able to reach my ideal weight and stay there.” But because I know that willpower is a muscle and that mine finally gave out on me that day, I was able to think, “Wow! That was a pretty stupid thing I just did. Now it’s time to get refocused on my goals and my plan.” And then I spent some time trying to figure out what I could have done differently so that maybe I would have been able to handle that situation better. Next time, I will bring a true treat that is safe for my food allergies but also feels indulgent enough that I don't feel like I'm missing out. I also reminded myself that while I slip up occasionally, I have come a long way in my relationship with food. And ultimately, none of this defines who I am. Forgive yourself, learn, and move on.

Another action I think may have made a difference on Sunday would have been to nourish my willpower muscle before we left, or promised myself a different sort of treat for afterward. If I had promised myself that upon returning home I’d get one hour of something relaxing like reading or snuggling with my kids, I may have been better able to skip indulging in Gluten-Fest 2012. Maybe when you feel your willpower muscle fatiguing, it’s time to treat yourself in a healthy way. It might mean a short walk outside, or 15 minutes of reading, or watching a few funny videos on YouTube. Your willpower muscle needs to recover just as your other muscles do. Sleep, healthy food, and activities that exercise your brain and body will all help you keep your willpower muscle strong.

My mom and I were talking about this whole willpower muscle concept the other day and she had a pretty genius insight. She said, “I wonder if that’s part of why moms are so exhausted all the time. They constantly have to say no to their kids when it would be so much easier in the short-term to just let the kids have, and do, what they want.” YES!!! Not only do we have to constantly deny ourselves, we are also flexing our willpower muscles in defense of our children’s little brains and bodies. And to thank us for this service they roll their eyes, whine, and make us feel like ogres! That prompts another willpower exercise (because really, when my daughter stomps her feet at me, what goes on in my head and what I actually do are usually two very different things). So recognize all of the ways that you DO control your behavior every minute of every day. At home, at work, in the car as you drive by In-N-Out, at the grocery store, etc., etc., etc. Pat yourself on the back each time you make a good choice instead of beating yourself up every time you give in.

So if you want to strengthen your willpower muscle:

1.      Plan, Prepare, Prioritize

2.      Forgive yourself when you slip

3.      Nourish your willpower muscle

4.      Give yourself credit
Don't forget that the Healthier You Challenge starts Monday. Feel free to leave your introduction here if you didn't already leave it on the first post!


  1. Hi - My name is Rose. I'm 60, retired and working on becoming healthier. I started going to Weight Watchers in January of this year and have been losing my excess weight gradually. I have about 17 more pounds to g. I am attending Brooke's Zumba classes once a week (love the classes, a great work-out) and have joined LA Fitness and have started step, pilate and spin classes. I love the variety and am feeling more energetic.

    I struggle with eating healthy, but try my best. Weight Watcher meetings help and so do my friends.

    Good luck to all of us.

  2. Welcome Rose! I can't wait to hear how you will challenge yourself to keep working toward your goals!