Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Paging Mr. Power, Mr. Will Power...

I was talking to my Mom the other day, and she was lamenting (as she is wont to do) the state of her current weight and the plans that she had to send that number into decline. As we rehashed the finer (and familiar) points of calorie intake and physical activity, I thought to myself that if the Department of Homeland Security came across snippets of our conversation out of context in one of their now totally constitutional and not at all invasive phone sweeps, they might mistake us for knowledgeable nutrition and weight loss professionals instead of just a fat girl and her mom who could stand to lose a few pounds herself. After all, we talk a very good game—full of strategies and buzzwords and clear and concise plans for putting that know-how into action. Mom remarked, not for the first time I might add, that she knows exactly what she needs to do…so why doesn’t she just do it already?

Well gee, Mom. Isn’t that the sixty four thousand dollar question?

I bet if you asked any group of overweight people how to lose weight that 99% of them would be able to write you a 1,000 word essay filled with factual information and conventional wisdom on the subject without having to crack a book or pen even a single footnote. While there may be that 1% of the obese population who just recently woke up one morning and realized for the first time that they might indeed have a bit of a weight problem, most members of Fat America aren’t on their maiden weight loss voyage once they’ve reached adulthood. The concepts traditionally involved in weight loss are painfully simple: Eat Less + Move More = A Smaller Ass. I know this. YOU know this. And yet most of us can’t seem to stick to that formula for any meaningful length of time. What is wrong with us that we can’t do what we know we should? How can we see so clearly what needs to be done, but turn around and make choices that are in direct opposition to our goals? Where, we wonder, is our willpower?

It seems that some scientists are wondering the same thing, and it turns out that they’re starting to figure this whole willpower thing out.

I read a fascinating article in Psychological Science about the science behind self-regulation and the concept of willpower. You see, I subscribe to several scientific medical publications and peruse them frequently for light reading material to amuse myself when I have a moment of free time between Mensa meetings or while using the bathroom. Or I might have heard about the article on the radio this morning and then googled it. I forget which. The article states that in a world where lack of willpower & self-regulation is at the root of many societal problems (obesity, addiction, consumer debt, violence, infidelity, crime, etc.), the science of willpower has become a priority for scientific study.

Over the years, many psychologists and biologists (and neurologists, oh my!) have been working to learn about the various ways that human beings regulate their behavior. Self-discipline is one of the hallmarks of humanity, and the ability to make choices that defer immediate gratification in favor of the promise of a future payoff is one of the central characteristics that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And yet most of us have trouble in some area of our life with regulating ourselves as much as we’d like to, or as much as we think we should. And when we find that we can’t rein ourselves in, we blame our lack of willpower for the failing.

In the weight loss world willpower a precious commodity, something that we long to have a good supply of, but too often seem to lack completely. We envy in it in others, we ask each other how we can get more of it (like we’re secretly hoping that someone knows the name of a guy who hangs out in back of the local Burger King and sells it out of the trunk of his car or something), and lament how we once had it in our hands it but it slipped through our grasp. We admire the people who have it in abundance, and we kick ourselves for letting ours fade away. And no matter how much of it we have, we always want more.

According to scientists, willpower is a lot like a muscle. We can choose to flex it, but it takes effort to exercise it—and just like any muscle that’s not used to being used regularly, it gets sore. Each individual seems to have a finite amount of it to use at any one time, and each successive situation that requires us to call up on our willpower can tire that muscle out. As I read this theory of willpower as muscle, it seemed to make a lot of sense to me. I know that, for me, my ability to control my behavior with food seems to be directly related to how much control I feel I have over the rest of my life. When my world is in balance and things are going swimmingly I have no problem calling upon my willpower to turn down a high calorie delicacy that doesn’t fit into my plan because I know that doing so will only keep me further from my goals. But if my world is in chaos, if I’ve already had to talk myself out of listing my child on Craig’s List under “Free Teenager, You Haul him away, you make my day!”, or had to stop myself from yelling at the jerk in the Jetta who cut me off on the expressway that morning, resisted the urge to tell a frustrating coworker exactly where they can put that last minute emergency request of theirs, and had to pry the third smallest piece of a set of hand painted nesting dolls that my parents brought me from their trip to Russia a few years ago out of a 70 pound Labrador Retriever’s jaws…then my ability to turn down an offer of “Hey, let’s go out for Mexican!” in favor of grilled chicken breasts, steamed broccoli and whole wheat cous cous is severely impaired. My willpower is no longer a shapely and taut muscle to flex for the world, but is sad and limp like a dunked cruller. (Mmmmm. Dunked Crullers.)

But if willpower is like a muscle, the big question is: Can we strengthen it through exercise? Interestingly enough, the answer seems to be yes. We can work it like any other muscle to make it stronger and more efficient for use in the future. Those of us with food issues can do exercises like tracking our food intake (Yep—turns out there’s a method to all that much lamented food journaling stuff they keep telling us is key to our weight loss success), through practicing our responses to difficult situations (Visualization, not just for hippies anymore!) and by repeated use of willpower in lower stress environments (that whole “fake it ‘till you make it” shtick might not be just an annoying catch phrase after all). And some studies also suggest that merely observing other people exercising self control helps us to make better choices in our own lives. (This means I can count catching up on my favorite weight loss bloggers' adventures each day as exercise. Hooray!)

It encourages me to think about willpower not as a trait that I just don’t have, but as a tool that I can develop. My willpower muscle might be flabby and lack tone, but I’m working to strengthen it, to move it and shake it and give it definition so that I’m no longer ashamed of how weak it is, but confident enough to show it off to the world. I think I can make that happen.

And then I’m going to do the same thing with my butt…

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