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Why do some people succeed at making healthy behavioral changes like losing weight and lowering cholesterol, while others struggle and relapse time after time?  The answer might lie in their willpower.

“Willpower is like a muscle. However, it can be fatigued through use,” said Barbara Fritzsche, Ph.D., associate professor in the UCF Department of Psychology. During a community event at UCF Health, Dr. Fritzsche explained that when people experience a “mismatch” between what they’re doing (dieting) and what they intend to do (not eat chocolate cake), there’s a spike in electrical activity in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain. This area is responsible for regulating functions like blood pressure and heart rate; and is involved in rational cognitive functions like reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy, impulse control and emotion.

When people feel physically and/or emotionally depleted, brain activity is weakened and many people experience extreme emotional reactions and have stronger cravings, she explained. So it’s important to understand what can deplete our willpower:

  1. Sleep and Food – Without enough sleep and a steady blood glucose level, research has shown that the willpower is significantly depleted. If you wake up tired and don’t eat a balanced breakfast, you’ve just put your willpower in jeopardy for the rest of the day.
  2. Resisting Temptation – The time we spend fighting temptation can deplete our willpower. In fact, most people spend three to four hours a day just resisting the urge to eat, which is tiring in itself.
  3. Conflicting Systems for Decision Making – According to researchers, we have two decision making systems…system one operates automatically with little or no effort (brushing your teeth before bed), and system two requires concentration and choice (beginning to get up early to exercise). Over time, the goal is to incorporate healthy habits into automatic, system one behavior.

Dr. Fritzsche gave a few tips for strengthening self-control:

  • Choose only one lasting behavioral change to work on at a time, making it small and attainable. Rather than saying you want to lose 20 pounds, opt for something like cutting out high-calorie sodas or switching from whole to low-fat milk.
  • Practice your new behavior change until it becomes a habit, which generally takes three to four months. During this time, many find it useful to be accountable to someone for making changes. Even sharing your efforts with friends through social media can provide much needed support.
  • Along the way, look for ways to simplify your life. If it’s junk food you’re trying to avoid, clean out the kitchen. If it’s financial stability you’re seeking, declutter your home and/or office because most people perform better and think more clearly in organized environments.
  • Reassess your goals. Once you’ve succeeded, go down your list and pick a new one to focus on.

Lastly, failure is just part of the change process. So when you do fail, avoid negative self-talk. Instead, say to yourself what you’d say to your best friend if he or she were in your same situation. But don’t give up working toward your health goals because mastering willpower or self-control in one area of your life can easily spill over into other areas.

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