Why You Can’t Get Healthy & Fit

“The strength of your life is measured by the strength of your will.”—Henry Van Dyke

What’s the number one reason people fail to improve their overall health and fitness?

They give up.

They give up because the changes are either imperceptible – things like blood pressure, cholesterol, respiratory rate, heart rate – or because the changes occur too slowly. Successful weight (think fat) loss, for example, is about 2-3 pounds a month and physical changes – the way you look – from exercise take at least two or three months of consistent work.

You have to earn your health.

In the midst of this effort to uplevel your health and fitness are all sorts of temptations, sirens of the will, beckoning you to deviate; to leave the path and join the dark side.

Sugar, grains, simple carbohydrates all taste good (well, to a lot of people) and can derail your efforts at improving your health . Just one more drive through at Jack-in-the-Box, you tell yourself. And then the next day, it’s something else and the day after that.

And physical training isn’t easy. There are a lot of days you might not feel like working on an Element or pounding out a twenty minute HIIT session. So, you skip it. And that one skipped session somehow morphs into three or four and then suddenly it’s been three weeks of inactivity.

How do you change this?

You have to do two things.

Increase your willpower reserve and learn how to conserve it.

Why Willpower is Important

Willpower is mental energy and with all forms of energy, there’s a finite supply. When you use your willpower, you deplete some of this energy and if you don’t understand how to conserve it, you’ll find a doughnut in your mouth faster than you can say Krispy Kreme.

You may have heard of the marshmallow experiment with young children.

This was done at Stanford and another follow-up study was done almost forty years later to find out what happened to these kids.

Young children, about four years of age, were told that they could either have a marshmallow right away or if they could wait while the researcher left to run an errand, they could have two marshmallows upon his return.

The researchers then observed what the children decided.

About a third of the kids took the marshmallow immediately. And another third waited until the researcher returned.

The scientists that followed these kids into adulthood, recorded what happened in their lives forty years later.

The kids who exerted willpower and waited, turned out to be fitter, had healthier relationships, and performed better in school.

The energy that drives good decision making and that produces fewer mistakes and more positive outcomes is willpower.

How to Increase Your Willpower

There’s really only one way to increase or strengthen your willpower.

Exposing yourself to temptation and denying it.

Over and over.

Willpower is similar to muscle power. You strengthen muscle by exposing it to a demand that slightly exceeds its capacity. Then, you rest. Your body builds the muscle in expectation of another challenge.

Strengthening your willpower functions the same way. You build the strength by delaying gratification then resting. And at first, just like with the marshmallow kids, it’s tough to do. But you get better at it with practice.

This is why, when you start building a new habit, you should start slowly and with small steps. A little demand, success, rest, repeat.

How to Conserve Your Willpower

To make changes in your life you need a good reserve of willpower and the main thing to take away is that to conserve willpower energy, you have to be aware. You choose what you will spend this mental capital on and what you won’t.

Sleep. Willpower is mental energy and without sufficient sleep, you just won’t have much of a reserve. Do your best to get the sleep you need (not everyone needs eight hours a night).

Work on one thing. When you get started with your new health & fitness strategy, you might be excited and try changing a lot of things at once. Revamp what you eat, dive full speed into weight lifting, HIIT, Steady State Endurance, flexibility all in week one. Rather than try changing all this stuff at once, pick one thing to change. Maybe that’s what you eat. Or maybe it’s working on one exercise routine. By doing this, you challenge yourself and build your willpower but avoid depleting it.

Postpone. A friend of mine has a handy tactic that really works well to fight off temptation. He just says, “I can always do that tomorrow”. Might be one of the few times procrastination is helpful.

Build self-awareness. This just means that you pay attention to what you’re doing. Pay attention to what you choose to eat, the activities you choose to do. By doing this, you can choose to let something go; to delay gratification.

Insert gratification. You don’t have to avoid gratification. In fact, removing something completely from your life all at once only increases the desire for it. This is why some people respond very well to a “cheat” day during the week when they change what they eat or drink.

Connect to your purpose. Knowing why you’re doing something helps you stay on track. So, creating a goal map, can be very helpful. I suggest Brian Mayne’s goal map tool. It’s simple to use although I think you may find it challenging to fill out. Do it anyway. When you’re done, you’ll have a much clearer picture of why you want to make almost any change in your life.

So, there you have it – how to strengthen your willpower and, perhaps more importantly, how to conserve it.


Doug Kelsey, PT, PhD  writes about “active aging” –  how to overcome aches & pains, get strong, flexible, agile and stay as healthy and fit as possible over your lifetime. If you enjoyed this article, join his free newsletter.

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