The Women's Journal

Is Willpower All In Your Mind?

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cathy_mcdoggel_ond16By Cathy McDougall


At some point in our lives, every one of us has likely used “I have no willpower” as an excuse. An excuse to overeat. An excuse to gossip. An excuse to sleep past the alarm clock.

When we see a physique we admire, we may think, “He (or she) must have amazing willpower.” When a friend turns down dessert as you order cake, you might say “I wish I had your willpower!”

But what if you truly BELIEVED that your own willpower was just as strong? What if you truly thought that your own willpower couldn’t be depleted by challenges, but actually made stronger?

If your MINDSET was such that you viewed willpower as an infinite resource, imagine the progress, gains and changes you could achieve towards your health and fitness goals!

Since the late 1990’s there have been quite a few studies that conclude that willpower is depleted when we are asked to “white knuckle” through difficult tasks: things like biting your tongue when a family member irritates you . . . saying “yes” to a movie with friends when you should be studying for a big exam, saying “no” to the morning donuts in the conference room.

These things are difficult to resist, and research has shown that “denying” ourselves does indeed require physical energy.

Scientists at the University of Toronto found there is actually decreased activity in the part of the brain involved with cognition when we are faced with willpower-depleting events. In other words, the brain activity changes. In addition, studies have shown that our glucose levels decline when our willpower is challenged. To us, that translates into “I’m tired, I need energy, I need a quick fix” . . . and we turn to the sugary snack. The quick rush makes us feel better (temporarily), and our willpower stores are filled up. Now we’re left with the often disappointing reality that we just ate several hundred worthless calories, and are no closer to achieving the fitness goals we are striving for.

But an emerging theory on willpower has been embraced by many in the fitness and health industry—a theory that actually proves willpower CAN be strengthened with a different mindset. In 2013, Stanford psychologists and researchers found that people who actually BELIEVED willpower was an abundant resource didn’t NEED an outside “fix” to get through a difficult task. They didn’t need that sugary drink, or vending machine treat.

Alexandre Dumas is known to have said, “Nothing succeeds like success”. The participants in the Stanford study who said they felt that willpower was cumulative did better on each subsequent task they were given.

Think back to your last success. Maybe it was nailing a presentation at work. Perhaps it was signing a new client. It could even be getting up at five am for a brisk morning walk. Did you feel stronger, braver, perhaps even empowered? If you could bottle that feeling, would it inspire you to meet your next challenge head on?

You can.  If you think about willpower differently, you can act differently. Start with baby steps. They are called “baby steps” because they are the first, more dramatic, important steps in our lives. The next time you walk past your co-workers candy drawer, without dipping in, stop to congratulate yourself. It may have been difficult, but YOU DID IT! Hurray. It’s a success. Do you feel good about yourself?  You should! Do you feel stronger? You should! You have achieved what has been a difficult task in your world. Tell yourself that you can now succeed at the next one. And the next one. Your willpower is filling up!

You will occasionally fail. But it’s not your willpower failing you. It’s your old mindset. Tell yourself that those tough mental challenges make you feel like you can accomplish anything. You can build on each success. Tell yourself that willpower isn’t a muscle that gets tired, it’s one that gets bigger and badder each time you use it! USE it or LOSE it! Willpower isn’t something you lose. It’s something that, with the right attitude, can help you be a happier, healthier you.


“I have been one of Cathy’s clients in her personal training business for over 5 years now. She not only helps keep me in shape, she supports me through all the changes in my life. Fitness and nutrition are important cornerstones for everyone’s life, and Cathy has helped me stay on track and stay positive through all of it. By knowing when to push, and when to support, she strikes the right tone that everyone needs when wanting to make healthy changes in their lifestyle.” – Whitney Hoffman

“Cathy is a great fitness trainer and overall health coach. She truly wants to see her clients succeed, gives great advice, tips and steps on how they can achieve their fitness and nutrition goals. Her motive is to help her clients make sustaining lifestyle changes, not just meet a short-term goal and falter after that. The key, I found, is how she guides on small achievable changes and individual goals working towards your larger goal one step at a time. That way, it doesn’t feel as overwhelming. I’ve been training with her for a little under six years now. I really look forward to working out with her once a week, I feel good about getting a great exercise session under my belt, and I always thank Cathy and myself afterwards. We are currently also working on weekly new nutrition tips and eating behavior modifications to coincide with my physical workouts. I really enjoy my time spent with her. She has a wonderful energetic nature, great sense of humor, and a real passion for health and willingness to help her clients. Most of all . . . she really cares.” – Lisa Crawford


Cathy McDougall

1 Balmoral Drive

Chadds Ford, PA 19317


[email protected]