Willpower is like a muscle and it gets stronger with regular use. However, for many the process of optimizing willpower is elusive. The five fitness gurus below are experts on the subject and they share their actionable strategies on how to boost your willpower to make powerful changes in your health and your life.
Thomas Lorne Irvine
Owner and head coach- Quest Personal Training Studio Inc. &
St. Lawrence College Cornwall physical fitness teacher
Willpower isn’t something you are born with or without, it’s developed through practice. It is strengthened through healthy practices and compromised by stress. Willpower health is related to the prefrontal cortex of the brain that controls behaviour, personality, decision making and motivation. Willpower is impaired by the fight or flight response caused from stress: dirty electricity, chemical exposure, sleep deprivation, over-training, and poor nutrition to name a few. The constant stress will increase irritability, temptation, overreaction and depletion of energy, which is not a recipe for willpower. Be aware of your choices, map out your weaknesses, and create methods to work around those obstacles.
Management of stress will improve attention, focus, awareness and impulse control. Methods we encourage are deep breathing, meditation, appropriate volumes and intensities of physical activity; even an isometric contraction can activate the willpower centres in the brain. One secret ingredient is the power of hand writing down your goals with specific targets and dates. Hand writing forces your brain to mentally engage with the information, increasing your retention, and learning.
A great recipe for enhanced willpower is increased awareness and accountability. Make a clear list of what matters most and what small choices will help achieve those goals. Write down on paper three positive habits that will lead to your goal and three negative habits that can sabotage your goal. Score one point for each accomplished and minus one point for each not accomplished. Once you achieve a score of six for 14 days in a row, add one habit to each column.
Three positive habits to accomplish
- Read 1 hour
- Practice deep breathing for 10 minutes
- Exercise 30 minutes
Three sabotaging habits to avoid
- Watching more than 1 hour of television
- Consumption of processed food
- Staying up past 10 pm
Igor Klibanov is the author of five books on exercise and nutrition, including STOP EXERCISING! The Way You Are Doing it Now and The Mental Health Prescription
I think willpower is largely overrated. What do you think when you hear the word “willpower?” Probably forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. Unfortunately, willpower is finite, and fleeting. One day you have, the next day you don’t. The next day you have it again. The following day, it’s gone.
Rather than forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do, why not figure out a way to want to do it? When I ask clients about their biggest obstacle, they often say that they don’t know if what they’re doing is working. The easy solution to that is to take regular measurements. With fat loss clients, we measure them every two weeks. With muscle gain clients, we measure them every 1-2 months.
This way, if you know that what you’re doing is working, you don’t need willpower. You’ll just be motivated to do more of what’s working. But what if you find out that what you’re doing isn’t working? At least you can course correct and do something differently. The problem isn’t with something not working. The problem is with not knowing if what you’re doing is working.
Kathleen Totteris a fitness expert, media personality, personal trainer, writer, life coach, and overall health enthusiast.
I actually don’t believe that willpower is the key to adopting a healthier lifestyle. Think of willpower as akin to a “self-surveillance muscle.” Like any muscle it gets exhausted. Exerting willpower requires conscious thought. You have to stop and think, “should I have the cookie or the apple?” Sure, you might make the healthier choice when you are newly motivated (say, New Year’s or Monday), or in the morning before life gets crazy, but as you get tired, angry, overwhelmed, depressed, etc., you are more likely to make less-than-ideal choices.
Willpower requires your brain to decide to be healthy, but the brain has limited capacity. The solution? Establish healthier habits (habits require less conscious awareness) and set up systems when you do have discipline — when you are motivated — so that your future less-disciplined self has no choice but to follow through.
Examples of systems include not having food in the house that you don’t want your future self to eat; piggybacking a workout onto something you already do (turn your dog walk into an intense cardio workout or take conference calls as you walk); eating from smaller plates and drinking from smaller glasses (we eat and drink less from smaller dishes), and portioning out your snacks — especially when watching TV (we’ll eat until the dish, package, or container is empty). I sleep in my exercise clothes to ensure my morning workout is as easy/convenient as possible. I have a client who connects his exercise bike to his TV so the TV only works if he is cycling.
Create systems based on you – your unique triggers and situations that typically derail you. For example, if you know you always skip your stretch post outdoor run because once in the house life and kids take over, decide you have to stretch on your porch before you go inside. One of my clients uses this system. It has moved her from stretching once a week (at best) to stretching after every workout.
The net is, sure, use willpower when you have it and act in ways that ensure your willpower muscle is strong (sleep, eat nutritionally dense meals to ensure your blood sugar stays stable, meditate, etc.) but know that willpower is not enough. At some point your future self will be tired, hangry, etc., and in those moments you need established systems that will keep you on course. Set up systems that will save you from your future less motivated, exhausted, sad, or overwhelmed self.
Deborah Capaccio – Creator and CEO of The Grit Girl Club.
When I was asked to speak about the importance of willpower and how to create it, I was super excited to share my thoughts! However, I prefer to use a different word to describe willpower, as I think this world has a bad rap and negative connotation. Instead, swap it out with an empowering word that is tied to success, victory, and inner fortitude. That word is GRIT.
I have built my company, my brand, and my personal wellness success around this word. That is how impactful I believe it is!
Grit is what separates the good from the excellent and the average from the elite. I truly believe that it isn’t our talents that get us to rise to the top 5 per cent, to earn the seven figures, or to hit that massive goal that seemed so out of reach. Instead, it’s our fierce determination, our tenacious attitude, our belief that we are capable of doing hard things and our willingness to do that thing, even when we don’t feel like it.
Sadly, I believe our culture has succumbed to a microwave-way of existing. A “get rich-quick”, a “lose 5lbs in three days” way of living and we have lost the ability to work hard, suffer for our goals, and win the long game.
If we can somehow get comfortable with being uncomfortable, stay laser-focused on our goals, realize that great accomplishments are supposed to be hard, take time and massive action, we will find our grit muscle. If we flex it every single day, it will grow and it will become easier to do what you need to do to move forward.
Success will naturally follow.
Willpower, grit, call it what you may – but use it! Find it! In the process you will reveal your unique gifts and talents that have always been there, but you never knew existed because you stopped just at the point you were about to summit the mountain.
I believe in you!
Professional athlete at IFBB Professional League and coach at Pro Gym
Willpower is staying focused on a particular goal and not letting outside forces disrupt your path, wanting something that you have the discipline and the self-control to see it through, and resisting instant self-gratification.
You keep willpower by taking care of yourself first; move, eat right, sleep well, and have good relationships. You increase it by setting smaller goals and achieving them, aka the Kaizen principle. The sense of accomplishment creates motivation, and motivation is a key element in willpower. It comes down to what you love the most, as love is the greatest force and can give anybody the will to accomplish anything, and the power stay on the right path and exercise self-control.