I ran across an interesting article today called The Science of Willpower.  It highlights several studies that indicate that willpower functions almost like a muscle – referred to as the “strength model of willpower:

This “strength” model of willpower has important implications for fitness and wellness professionals who seek to inspire and support healthy behavior in others. By understanding how willpower can be strengthened, you can find new strategies for helping clients meet their goals. And by understanding why willpower is necessarily limited, you can identify ways of supporting behavior change without exhausting willpower.

A strength model of willpower proposes four important ideas:

  1. Willpower is a mind-body response, not merely a mindset.
  2. Using willpower depletes resources in the body.
  3. Willpower is limited.
  4. Willpower is trainable.

It then goes on to describe how acts of self-control actually lower blood glucose, and that one such act would make subsequent acts of discipline more difficult until glucose levels were restored.  For those of us who try to follow a diet which keeps glucose levels low to begin with, this may explain why even moderate stress can make it very difficult to resist that bagel or Butterfinger.

I mention this because I myself have “fallen off the wagon” several times in the past few days.  And the worst part was that it wasn’t a struggle where I would pace in front of the fridge, talking myself into rolling up a slice of turkey instead of grabbing that candy bar.  I just didn’t care. I said, “I want candy, chips, and ice cream”, and I ate them.  Even got a Dr. Pepper from the store, and I haven’t had soda since I don’t know when.  Now I’m not making excuses for my behavior, but I have been quite sleep deprived since the birth of my daughter.  Could it be that the willpower required to drag my butt out of bed every two hours at night is using up the energy I usually reserve for motivating myself to exercise when I get up and avoid the things I know to be bad for me but taste so sweet?  The research seems to support the idea.

Again, I’m not making excuses.  I find it very useful to know the actual physical processes which take place in the body, as I feel that understanding how the body works does make it easier to respond to the physical and emotional signals we receive.  Thinking of willpower as something that’s “all in our minds” makes it seem insubstantial and arbitrary.  I am going to make a conscious effort to remind myself that my lack of willpower is merely a symptom of the stress I am experiencing, and that I can easily replace that teaspoon of blood sugar through gluconeogenesis.  I will roll up that turkey!