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Willpower is an Exhaustible Resource, Study Shows

My battle with self control when it comes to food has been an arduous one, the main problem being I love sugar so much it hurts. One week, I feel I could say ‘no’ to someone waving three of my favorite flavor ice cream cones in my face. And the next, if I saw a shiny piece of candy on the ground I might just pick it up and eat it right there on the spot.

In other words, my self control seems to come in waves. While it’s here, I feel empowered. But when it’s outside of my grasp, I’m left feeling powerless.

But there may be reason behind my inability to pass up my favorite indulgences. According to a new study, we have a limited supply of self control and when it dries up, we’re practically defenseless in the face of temptation.

Researchers asked 16 people to perform a self-control test while being monitored by an fMRI scanner, and found that participants exuded much more self control during the first session than the second. 

During the first test, participants were assigned either a demanding or simple mental task. And at a second test two weeks later, the tasks were swapped. Brain scans revealed that during the first test, participants showed ‘promising activity’ in the areas of the brain that manage decision making and self control. But after the second test, participants showed less promising results when given the more demanding task first.

Lead author William Hedgcock, Pd.D., explained that “if you exert a significant amount of self control at one time, you’ll have a hard time exerting it later.” It’s all making sense to me now.

An example of how our self control wanes is perhaps when we try to resist a plate of cookies at work. We’re able to say ‘no’ the first time because ‘we’re on a diet.’ But, as Hedgcock explains, the second time we’re faced with the temptation we’re far more likely to give in because ‘our self control is like a muscle. If you use it extensively in the short term, it will wear out and become exhausted. And time is the only thing that helps it renew itself.’

Hedgock recommends using your resources wisely to prevent running completely out of self control. We can do this by giving into temptation the healthy way instead of avoiding our cravings altogether. For example, he says, if you’re craving an ice cream cone, opt for some frozen yogurt instead. Doing so will allow you to satisfy the craving while still exercising self control. This is a much more sustainable practice than attempting to deny yourself constantly, as that approach will inevitably fail us.

So maybe next time I’m at the ice cream shop and I really want two scoops, I’ll just get one. Or, I’ll get the frozen yogurt instead. Oftentimes it takes far less to satisfy my cravings than I actually perceive. And getting in the habit of thinking that way now will only benefit my health in the longrun.

Also Read:

Study Suggests our Cravings Are a Result of the Way Our Brains Are Wired  

How to Make Healthy Choices with Weak Willpower

Change Your Brain, Change Your Body

source: Men’s Health via TODAY

July 24th, 2012

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