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Originally published February 1 2013

Lack self-control? You can build it like a muscle, study says

by David Gutierrez, staff writer

(NaturalNews) Good news for all those people who feel like they suffer from a lack of willpower and self-control: according to a study conducted by researchers at The Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center and published in the journal Obesity Research and Clinical Practice, it is possible to train your willpower in the same way that you would train your body to build more muscle. Significantly, the researchers also found that people who were successfully able to build their self-control were also able to lose more weight.

"The more you 'exercise' [your willpower] by eating a low fat diet, working out even when you don't feel like it, and going to group meetings when you'd rather stay home, the more you'll increase and strengthen your self-control 'muscle' and quite possibly lose more weight and improve your health," lead author Tricia M. Leahey said.

The research consisted of two separate studies, the first involving 40 people who took part in a behavioral weight-loss intervention. All participants were put on an exercise plan and a low-fat, reduced calorie diet, and were instructed in behavioral change strategies such as relapse prevention. They also attended private weigh-ins and weekly sessions led by behavioral psychologists, dietitians or exercise physiologists.

After six months, participants performed a hand grip test of overall self-control. In this test, the participant is instructed to squeeze a hand grip for as long as possible. Because the task becomes increasingly unpleasant as time goes on, with the participant experiencing "aversive stimuli" such as cramping, discomfort and pain, it is considered a good measure of a person's willpower. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that people who performed better on the test of self-control had better attendance at the weekly sessions, consumed fewer calories from fat, exercised more and lost more weight.

Although previous studies have shown a connection between willpower and the ability to quit smoking, no such studies have been conducted on weight loss, Leahey said.

"Of course it makes sense that if you have more 'willpower' you'll do better in a weight loss program; however, this phenomena is surprisingly understudied," she said.

Willpower can be built

In the second study, researchers ran 23 participants through the same intervention, with one key difference: willpower was measured both at the start and at the end of the study. The researchers found that much like people who had high willpower to begin with, people whose willpower increased over the course of the study also attended more weekly sessions, exercised more, ate better and lost more weight.

"Our findings suggest that self-control is potentially malleable and the practice of inhibiting impulses may help people lose weight, eat healthier and increase their physical activity," Leahey said.

This means that rather than simply focusing on healthy versus problematic behaviors, health interventions might benefit from also encouraging participants to use well proven techniques to increase self-control.

"Future weight loss treatments may consider targeting self-control, or willpower, as a way to enhance outcomes," Leahey said.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.


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