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Self-control is the foundation to a healthy lifestyle – and it’s a skill that can be strengthened with practice

Self-control is the foundation to a healthy lifestyle – and it's a skill that can be strengthened with practice

Highlighting summer’s enhanced opportunities for healthy behavior has become a tradition for this column. 

In prior years, I’ve examined the unique benefits of swimming, offered tips for exercising outdoors in hot, humid weather, and described how summer provides more workout choices that can boost mental health and fortify the loving relationships that motivate an active lifestyle.

In keeping with tradition, here is my annual installment – one that zeroes in on the core component for maximizing everything summer has to offer. It’s a foundation designed to produce more than just a summer fling at healthy living. Rather, it lays the groundwork for a lifelong commitment to yourself and the loved ones you’ll be spending quality time with over the coming months. It’s the nucleus of all things healthy in the most comprehensive way: self-control. 

Whether you know it as willpower or self-discipline, our ability to control our own behavior is at the center of healthy living. Sticking with the good and avoiding the bad is an approach that permeates all facets of life – our finances, careers, relationships and, of course, diet and exercise. It’s a simple proposition, yet extensively complicated and challenging. 

However, when it comes to exercise, the science suggests there is a unique, bi-directional relationship between self-control and exercise – with reinforcing qualities. When you break down this mind-body relationship, the prospect of permanent behavior change becomes very much within reach.

To establish a baseline understanding, let’s examine what scientists mean by self-control. Researchers Ruth Boat and Simon Cooper from Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom define self-control as “the mental capacity of an individual to alter, modify, change or override their impulses, desires, and habitual responses.” 

When it comes to exercise, they suggest there is a bi-directional relationship between self-control and exercise. Greater self-control is linked with better performance and consistency. In turn, people who sustain their exercise regimens and maintain their fitness demonstrate better self-control. Consistent with this relationship, Boat and Cooper have found that low levels of self-control are associated with decreased performance and lower persistence. While the scientists are firm in this bi-directional relationship, they acknowledge that it’s unclear if good exercise habits are a product of self-control or if exercise stimulates self-control. They offer the possibility that some combination may be in play. 

One of the central concepts in the self-control discussion is “delay discounting,” the ability to choose larger rewards that come later over smaller, more immediate rewards. It’s the ability to defer a $5 payment now for a $15 payment later. 

study conducted at the University of Kansas found that improvements in delay discounting can be altered through exercise. According to Michael Sofis, who headed the study, “exercise could help” people lacking self-control. Among a diversified group of participants with varying body mass indexes, incomes and mental health levels, the research suggests that “if anyone just exercises, it’s likely you will show some improvements,” Sofis said.

Self-control and older adults

study that examined the relationship between self-control and age found that participants age 30 and older demonstrated greater self-control. 

Another study found self-regulation indicators differentially predicted psychological health, positive health behaviors and physical health, and that promoting better self-regulatory function may yield the most robust health for older adults.

And while it’s not exactly self-control – but certainly a close cousin – “grit,” as defined by Angela Duckworth in her book of the same name, is a quality that has the capacity to grow as we age. 

How to build self-control

In his book “The Power of Discipline,Daniel Walter says “neuroscientists can detect higher levels of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex” when a person exhibits exercise willpower and delays gratification. Much like a bicep is built through lifting weights, Walter suggests healthy choices strengthen the brain and that discipline can be developed – if people are willing to put in the work.

A chain of actions produce discipline, Walter says. It starts with the ability to focus, which is influenced by executive functions like cognitive flexibility and impulse control. Sustaining focus requires goals and filtering out the stress of temptations. Walter believes that following this path creates an internal rigor that keeps people on track and true to their commitments to themselves when they might otherwise succumb to everyday pressure to give up. Other tactics offered by Walter include embracing physical and mental discomfort and developing healthy habits.

An American Psychological Association survey found willpower – the ability to resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals – was the top reason for the inability to make healthy lifestyle changes. Like Walter, the APA says willpower can be strengthened with practice. In their review, the APA acknowledges the theory of willpower depletion, in which a person’s willpower can get fatigued from overuse. But it also reports that willpower depletion can be managed with healthy beliefs and attitudes. 

The APA cites science that shows people exhibiting a good mood and autonomous motivation are better at overcoming willpower depletion. As for tactics to strengthen self-control, the APA recommends a technique that psychologists call “implementation intention” or “if-then” statements. To illustrate, the APA describes a person looking to limit her alcohol intake as she plans for a party where she is likely to be offered a drink. “If anyone offers me a drink, then I’ll ask for a club soda with lime,” she says. Simple but effective.

So, back to summer and the pivot to a healthy lifestyle. You’ll be tempted on a variety of occasions to fall prey to the urge of immediate gratification. No question, you’ll be faced with a ton of short-term choices, and it may be hard to think long-term in the moment. To that I suggest that you look in the eyes of the children or grandchildren nearby. Perhaps your spouse or other loved ones are nearby when temptation hits. Be prepared, think about those memories to come – graduations, weddings, travel plans and the like. Exercise your mind and body to build the collective capacity to stand true to your cause.

Whatever your challenges, building the self-control, discipline, or willpower – whatever you want to call it – is at the center of it all. Make this summer the one where you take control of your lifestyle and set out on a course of that will bring rewards to you and your loved ones for the rest of your life.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of “Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50.” Read more from Louis on his website.

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