Exercise improves “willpower”

I’ve poo-pooed the notion of “willpower.”  I’ve suggested that fast and processed foods are designed to make us overeat, but that if we instead eat low-glycemic carbs (sweet potatoes, for example, but not white potatoes, white bread, white rice – notice a pattern?!?!) and lean meats/fish/poultry or beans (full of hunger-busting protein), we won’t eat as much over the next several hours.

But… our environment is full of chocolate chip cookies… french fries… Starbucks milkshakes (that’s what they really are)… How can we resist???

An increasing amount of research shows that obese people’s brains are different from lean people.  Even after a 12 week weight loss program, obese folks seem more susceptible to food cues and experience less satisfaction once they eat it.  I’ve been at 212 lbs for 2 years now (down from 337 lbs max); I know I don’t get as tempted (I’m getting a little tempted writing this, even though it’s been 3.5 years since I’ve eaten any) anymore by the lemon-iced pound cake when I go into Starbucks to get my green tea (unsweetened).  There was a time when I couldn’t enter Starbucks without “indulging.”

New research shows that exercise improves our brains’ ability to make decisions and choices that are in our long-term best interest.  That’s called “executive function.”  It helps me say: “I’ll pass on that pound cake today, because I’ll enjoy the compliments I’ll get on the beach when on vacation 2 months from now.”

over a 6-month period, a group that engaged in moderate walking not only became more aerobically fit, but also showed enhanced executive processing, as indexed by better performance in task switching, stopping and selective attention tasks…(123). In agreement with these findings, functional magnetic resonance imaging data show that modulation of physical activity disproportionately influences tasks that necessitate greater amounts of executive control (124). This coincides with evidence that brain regions related to executive control … are more plastic (125), structurally sound (126) and even prone to growth (127) with elevated levels of aerobic fitness.

Perhaps, elevated physical activity can facilitate changes in related healthy lifestyle behaviours by ‘training’ the cognitive resources necessary for their execution.

I believe that exercise and food choices go hand-in-hand, and are in fact, synergistic in producing weight loss.  Exercise burns calories, but more importantly perhaps, it makes us more disciplined, more optimistic, better planners, less stressed…  “Diet” alone is not the answer, even though I think food choices are the most important.  Almost all successful long-term weight losers also incorporate exercise into their lifestyles.  Exercise can help us grow new brain cells and connections that can help our willpower.


Dr John Ellis MD

Board-certified anesthesiologist, with expertise in cardiovascular anesthesia and the implications of obesity and sleep apnea in anesthesia. See vascularanesthesia.com for professional information. Dr. Ellis has used the strategies in here to: (1) lose 120 lbs over 18 months, (2) stop all antihypertensive medicines, and (3) no longer need CPAP treatment for sleep apnea.

One Comment:

  1. My sneakers are by the front door ready to return to the gym and my personal trainer!

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