Any successful diet or fitness program starts with the same fundamental principle – willpower. Every resolution is doomed to failure if you are unable to commit and persevere.
As a very young man early in my minor league days, I had my moments of weakness. As I progressed and grew, I needed to learn to make more mature decisions; as a MLB player, temptations are everywhere. Gluttonous meals, late night drinking and partying, processed clubhouse foods – the pitfalls were around every corner.
Our ability to make quality choices is directly related to a number of important factors. Some people seem naturally gifted in this area, but how we treat our bodies may be more important than the willpower gifts passed down from our parents. There is growing scientific evidence that you can train your brain to get better at self-control. From Kelly McGonial in The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works and Why It Matters:
Science is discovering that self control is a matter of physiology, not just psychology. It’s a temporary state of both mind and body that gives you the strength and calm to override your impulses.
The good news is that you can learn to shift your physiology into that state when you need your willpower the most. You can also train the body’s capacity to stay in this state, so that when temptation strikes, your instinctive response is one of self-control.
The initial step is to be properly hydrated. Drinking water is important for every aspect of our lives. Even very mild dehydration, before we begin to feel thirsty, has adverse mental consequences. We experience increases in anxiety, difficulties in decision making and memory, and lower mood levels. Harris Lieberman, co-author of multiple studies on the effect of dehydration:
Even mild dehydration that can occur during the course of our ordinary daily activities can degrade how we are feeling…these adverse mood changes may limit the motivation required to engage in even moderate aerobic exercise. Mild dehydration may also interfere with other daily activities, even when there is no physical demand component present.
If you are not getting enough water, you will find it much more difficult to make good decisions. Those same studies also showed that dehydration influenced how difficult we perceive tasks. The harder you think something will be, the harder it is to motivate yourself to do it.
Now that you’re properly hydrating, the next step is meditation. Meditation enhances our willpower by actually changing our brains. From the same book:
Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self awareness. People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains turn into willpower machines. Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as regions that support self awareness.
When you meditate, just sit and breathe. No need to be technical at the outset. There is one area where it will help you to be strict. Sit still and don’t fidget. McGonial continues:
It’s important not to fidget when you meditate- that’s the physical foundation of self control. If you notice the instinct to scratch an itch, adjust your arms, or cross and uncross your legs during meditation, see if you can feel the urge but do not follow it. This simple act of staying still is part of what makes meditation willpower training effective. You’re learning not to automatically follow every single impulse that your brain and body produce.
Keep in mind, the willpower muscle, like the rest of your body, needs to be consistently fired and flexed in order to stay strong.
You’re here and reading because you want to be healthier and stronger mentally and physically. Your homework is two steps to start yourself on the path to supreme well-being.
- Drink 8 ounces of water every hour until your last meal.
- Meditate for 5 minutes a day upon waking and before getting in bed.
Let me know how it goes,