What's Your Secret, Dr. Birdie? Willpower

By , SparkPeople Blogger

"You've lost over 100 pounds! What's your secret?"

I've heard that question countless times.  When I first lost the weight, my answer was always simple and the same: "diet and exercise."  Disappointed looks always followed and I would walk away thinking, "Why did I disappoint them? I was only trying to be honest and helpful!"  But, over time, I started to really think about how unsatisfying my answer must be to those who are serious about wanting to lose weight and change their lives.  I believe that everyone to some degree has an understanding that "diet and exercise" boils down to what we call here at SparkPeople "calories in vs. calories out."  I know that there are millions of people who are uninformed about how many calories they should consume in a day and even more if you throw in the concepts of nutrition and how to incorporate exercise into your daily lifestyle.  So, if the purely educational barriers are overcome, is this still enough for everyone to achieve long-term success?   

There will be a certain percentage of overweight people who, just by providing them with tools and accurate information about diet and exercise, will be able to successfully their reach weight loss and maintenance goals.  Kudos to them!  Unfortunately, I believe is that is a very small percentage and, to my dismay, I am not a member of that group.  You don’t end up weighing close to 300 pounds based solely on pure lack of knowledge about what it takes to create a calorie deficit!  Let me clarify to say that educating yourself about nutrition and exercise is important; what I am asserting is that knowledge of nutrition and exercise ALONE will not be effective for MOST of us to achieve our weight-loss goals.  This may be a bit shocking to hear, especially coming from someone who spends time and energy in the pursuit of educating people about "diet and exercise."  Knowledge about diet and exercise is the key to shedding weight and maintaining the lost pounds, but what I want to discuss today is how one places the key in the ignition to incite change and get excited about that knowledge.      

With these thoughts in mind I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on another concept that is widely associated with weight loss, willpower.  This is a core element that most believe to be paramount to the success of any weight-loss endeavor. 
What is willpower?  Willpower as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "the power to control one's actions, impulses, or emotions." 

The ability to control one's actions and impulses!  That sounds exactly like what we need in vast quantity to lose and maintain our weight!  Those who have lost a significant amount of weight obviously had it in plentiful supply during their journey.  There are different paradigms that can be used to describe willpower.  Some believe that the amount you possess is predetermined at birth (like eye color).  Others believe that it resides in all of us whether we realize it or not and that we just need to learn how to tap into it.  The belief that that I am most fond of and interested in is that willpower is a resource that can be strengthened or squandered.  

Let's discuss a study that sheds light into what willpower is and take away some potentially helpful information that may help you on your quest to achieve weight loss and a permanent lifestyle change.  This study was not designed for the purpose of weight loss, but given that the whole science of weight loss and weight maintenance is incomplete at best I think it's OK to take a few liberties in order to try to understand why it's not easy to lose the weight and to keep it off.

One of my favorite willpower studies involves children and marshmallows, conducted in 1972 by Stanford University researcher Walter Mischel and colleagues.  
As a study into delayed gratification, researchers offered 4-year-old children a marshmallow.  The children were told that they could eat one now or have two marshmallows if they were able to wait for 15 minutes.  The scientists then put the kids alone in a room in front of the marshmallow and asked them to wait for 15 minutes to get a second one.  Not surprisingly, many of the little guys decided to have the one marshmallow early because the temptation was too great.  Inside the temptation room, some of the kids had almost no impulse control and decided to eat it immediately.  A few kids made it a few minutes only to cave in and eat the marshmallow early.   Thirty percent of the kids were able to look temptation in the face and make it the full 15 minutes.  What is interesting is that these "full 15 minute" kids were found, on follow up testing, to be more successful in areas such as SAT scores and social relationships.  I'm kind of thinking I would be in the "waited a few minutes, then gave in" group.  How about you? 

Here's the good news.  Mischel then wanted to know if the children were able to learn how to resist temptation.  The children were taught some mental tricks such as pretending the marshmallow is not real but only a picture of a cloud.  By using this imagery, many more kids were able to make the 15 minutes in order to get the prized second marshmallow.  Mischel concluded from his findings that "once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it."  Interesting, isn't it?  

How can we apply his research? This study is 40 years old and involves preschoolers, so it does not necessarily translate into what we are trying to accomplish here at SparkPeople, but I think that we can note that these findings in some ways mirror what we try to do when we attempt to modify our behavior while learning how to follow a healthy lifestyle.  I believe that it is extremely important to understand that willpower (the ability to control's ones actions, impulses, and emotions) is an extremely precious and valuable resource that can be eroded (through stress and temptation) or strengthened (through mental strategies like meditation or mental imagery, sparkteams, inspirational or success stories, etc.). 

Your ability to make permanent lifestyle changes will require that you solidify and maintain a supply of willpower because your long term success depends on it. 
Through my own experience I have found some things that erode my willpower (and cause me give up my second marshmallow!).  Among them:
  1. Stress in general.
  2. Keeping trigger foods in the home (100-calorie packs, sugary cereals, "low-calorie" desserts, cookies, chips, pizza, etc.). 
  3. Going certain places (bakeries, certain restaurants, birthday parties, etc.).
  4. Disorganization (I'm not a neat freak, but there is only so much mess I can tolerate).
  5. Procrastination.
These are just a few of the stressors in my life that can lead me to lose the ability to control my actions and impulses (erode my willpower).  I have spent quite a bit of time over the past few years coming up with solutions for every one of them.  How did I come up with my solutions?  Mostly through what many would describe as trial and error.  It probably took me eating about 20 boxes of 100-calorie snack packs in one sitting before I finally decided once and for all that they completely destroy my willpower and therefore they must not come back in to the home.  I could go on and on about the things that I have done to protect my willpower from erosion.  

I cannot claim that I haven't let my willpower reserves come close to or hit empty.  But, when that happens I try to use a few of these strategies to start getting it filled up again.  Through my own experience, I have found things that increase my willpower:
  1. My husband. He's an incredible troubleshooter! He always has a great solution to share!
  2. My family.  But, they can be a source of stress and erosion as well!
  3. SparkTeams! Support is vital.
  4. Mental strategies like meditation, prayer or mental imagery.  I have not yet achieved competency at meditation, but I see the merit in it and continue to work on becoming more consistent in practicing the art. 
  5. Inspirational stories.  I love weight-loss success stories, but anything that inspires works!
Unfortunately, there are no definitive resources that tell us exactly how the science of willpower plays into weight loss and maintenance.  Much more attention needs to be spent on describing effective strategies to improve willpower and also strategies that teach us how to avoid losing it.

Today, if I'm approached and someone asks me, "What's your secret?"  My answer is usually something like, "Diet and exercise, BUT that is only a piece of the puzzle.  You must minimize your stress in order to keep your willpower and motivation high enough to achieve the consistency that is required to reach your goals."  That's a lot wordier than "diet and exercise" yet it may still be unsatisfactory.   Why?  It has to do with the fact that losing weight and maintaining weight loss is a multifactorial endeavor that is not easily accomplished.  But, I believe that here at SparkPeople we have the tools that will enable you to not only master the diet and exercise piece of the puzzle but also work on other factors such as building and protecting your willpower.   Stick with us and you can and will find your way to success!

Never give up and keep sparking everyone!

What are some of the things that you have found that strengthen or erode your willpower?  What are some of the strategies that you have found through trial and error? 

Dr. Birdie Varnedore, M.D., is happy to offer her expertise to the SparkPeople community; however, she cannot offer specific medical advice to dailySpark readers. Please do not share confidential medical information here. If you have a personal question or a concern about your health, please contact your health-care provider.