The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between

Tues Psych Post ~Sticking to a Diet: Do You Lack Self-Control?

Over the past 10-15 years the research on “Self-control” (also known as willpower, self-discipline) has really started to increase.

What the research has shown, or better yet, what the research is showing, is that self-control acts like a muscle.  What this means is that, like a muscle, self-control can get tired (like it does when you work out) and if your reserves of self-control get used up, it makes it harder for you to resist temptation (like it would be harder for you to lift a weight if you were tired).

This theory is called “The Strength Model of Self-Control.”  This example is exemplified in the author’s writing in Ego Depletion and the Strength Model of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis (pdf)

“After people have engaged in an act of self-control, their capacity to exercise further self-control becomes exhausted, leading to decreased performance on subsequent acts of self-control…once a person’s self-control reserves have been depleted, the resulting state…can be counteracted by replenishing the resource through rest or relaxation or by taking on fuel.”

Basically this theory postulates that there are a bunch of factors that influence your ability to resist temptation, stick to long-term plans (like working out) or give into that temptation.

The 6 main factors that correlate with a lack of self-control are:
1 – Stress
2 – Your perceived needs for self-control
3 – Low Blood Sugar
4 – Alcoholic Consumption
5 – Fatigue
6 – A “Bad Mood” or Emotional Strain (Negative Affective State)

Looking at this list, I feel like saying, “Wow – were those studies really needed?!?”  But I’m being facetious.  The bottom line is that most of the items on that list do seem like they are common sense.  When someone’s in a bad mood, they may want a drink (there goes that whole not drinking) and when they drink they may want to eat french fries (there goes that diet).  When that person’s tired, they may not want to go to the gym, and instead just veg out in front of the TV.  When they’re hungry and stressed, they may want fat, greasy food as opposed to chicken and vegetables…and so on.

None of these things seem like they are out of the realm of possibility.

You then have to ask yourself, “If those are the factors that influence self-control negatively, and are things that I face daily, what would actually give me better self-control?”

For this, again the answers seem like common sense. 
Here’s 7 things that will help with increasing your self-control:

1 – Rest and Relaxation – Taking time to relax between one self-control depleting task and another leads to better self-control. This isn’t always an easy option to see happen, but it can be planned.  Studies have shown that just a ‘6-minute nap’ can re-energize you and allows you to make better decisions.  If you can’t nap, go take a walk.  Studies have shown that just seeing trees and greenery helps to relax you.  (Is this why people in NYC are so stressed until they get to Central Park?)

2 – Practice at self-control – The more you prepare yourself, both mentally and then ‘in practice’ of having self-control, the better you become in the long-run.  This is also similar to a muscle.  You may not be very strong when you start, but over time, you can build the muscle up.

A way of “practicing” is to actually make if-then statements.  For example, if you’re going on a diet and you know your co-workers always bring in sweets, have an “if-then” statement in place and practice it mentally.  Your if-then statement can be something like, “If Jenny (your co-worker) brings in cupcakes (like she does every Tuesday), then I will say, ‘No thanks,’ and eat an apple instead.”

In this way, you’ve practiced mentally, and the act of eating something healthier makes it easier to physically say no and follow through.

3 – Motivation – Obviously, one’s motivation for a desired end also influences one’s self-control.  The more motivation you have, the easier it is to continue on a task. This is really where defining your goals comes into play.  The more you can truly define what you want, the easier it is to stay motivated on the road that can be lined with temptations from every angle.

4 – Constant blood sugar – “Self-control” has been shown to be increased with glucose (sugar) supplementation.  That’s sort of like saying, “My diet is easy – all I do is eat chocolate cake every time I’m tempted.”  Yeah, not quite.

The key with this is to keep your blood sugar levels stable.  So if you know that you’re going to have a rough day, you’re on a diet and you want to stick with it,  make healthy snacks the night before.  Have it already pre-planned, when you will eat.  Therefore, when stress depletes your self-control for the day, it won’t ruin your diet.

5 – Avoid situations that make you exert self-control – The easiest way to not feel tempted, is to not be put into situations that tempt you.  Sounds easy enough, but not always practical.  The take-home advice with this is don’t go to your favorite restaurant when you’re sticking to a diet. 

6 – Don’t drink alcohol – Alcohol lowers one’s ability to make higher order decisions, which are critical to long term planning and follow through.  Higher order decisions are based on a different brain region than those that are responsible for impulsive decisions.  In essence, this is called a dual-system model of decision making.  I like to call it the Angel and Devil system of decision making.  The “Angel” -higher order decisions is telling you what to do, with logical reasons.  The “Devil” – impulsive decisions is telling you what to do with the here and now reasons.  Listen to the angel more and the devil less, always seems like a good plan for sticking to a long-term goal.

7 – Focus on intermediate steps – This step really hits home for me.  For the past 4 months (or 4 years) I’ve been trying to wake up around 8 am on the days that I don’t have to be in until 11.  If I did so, I would have more time to workout before work, instead of after when I won’t get home from the gym until 10 pm making me lose sleep because I have to be up at 5 am the next day. 

What did I do?  I focused on the intermediate steps. 

What are the things causing me to be up late at night?  The gym, but after that, I would sit in front of the TV instead of just eating.  So if I cut out the TV, that allowed me to go to bed an hour earlier.  That still didn’t work, because then I would turn on my laptop.  Therefore, I had to include no laptop after 9 pm and no TV on weekday nights (the weekend is fine). That still didn’t do the trick, because then I would read, which with me, would keep me engrossed more than the TV and laptop.  So I had to make sure that I was reading enough on Saturday and Sunday so I didn’t feel like I was playing catch-up with my reading.  By doing so, I allowed myself to not feel bad about not reading at night, made it easy to not watch TV (eat in the dining room and not the living room) and made an easy rule with regards to the laptop (no laptop on in my house after 9pm – Starbucks is fine).

The result is that I now wake up before 8 am to be able to get to the gym for 45 minutes before work.

The key is to figure out the things that are holding you back (awareness) and then to make smaller steps along the path towards your desired ends.

Self-control, just like a muscle is built up over-time, with due diligence, proper feeding and enough rest to recover.

If you have any questions about this information or personal training in Hoboken, email me at

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