Will Power and Healthy Habits

Psychological deterrents to exercise and healthy eating adherence are of great interest to me. We’ve previously discussed that people who are more skillful may be more likely to be active, and self-efficacy research reveals that an individual’s belief in his or her ability to successfully do an activity is a large determinant of if he or she will actually do it (Clarke, 2015; Jongen et al., 2016). Other psychological factors contributing to adherence are support and willpower.

A meta-analysis by Burke, Carron, Eys, Ntoumanis, and Estabrooks (2006) demonstrated the value of contact and/or social support in exercise. The more contact and social support available, the greater the adherence was as well as the beneficial effects of the exercise (Burke et al., 2006). I believe this is the reason activities such as Crossfit and spin classes have such loyal patrons. The group or team dynamics increase members’ consistency and, therefore, their results.

Willpower, synonymous with the concepts of self-control and active volition, is another psychological component of diet and exercise adherence. The Fell article (2011) mentions that willpower is a limited resource that gets depleted throughout the day, therefore, the morning is the best time for one to make the decision to exercise. Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice (1998) further demonstrated that one’s willpower is limited and one’s willpower in a certain task (for example, exercise) can be depleted by unrelated acts (such as willpower at work) that share this common resource.

Willpower is important for anyone who is trying to change habits, especially those involving diet or exercise, to understand, as relying solely on will power may not be the most effective method. One of my favorite fitness bloggers, Sohee Lee, writes a lot about how willpower comes into play with diet goals. She discusses how restrained eating (when an individual must resist the urge to eat particular “forbidden” foods) draws more on one’s willpower reserves than unrestrained eating (no food is off-limits), and, often, counter-regulatory eating (overeating “forbidden” foods) results from a period of high restraint (Lee, 2016). Because of this, she recommends a no-food-off-limits approach to healthy eating, and that one should make small changes week by week toward healthier eating as opposed to drastic ones. The less willpower required the more likely the healthy habits will last.


Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource [Abstract]? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74(5):1252-65.

Burke, S. M., Carron, A. V., Eys, M. A., Ntoumanis, N., & Estabrooks, P. A. (2006). Group versus individual approach? A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of interventions to promote physical activity. Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, 2(1), 19-35.

Clark, J. E. (1995). On becoming skillful: Patterns and constraints. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 66(3), 173-183.

Fell, J. S. (2011, April 4). For best exercise, don’t be lonely or late. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-fitness-exercise-adherence-20110404,0,746272.story

Jongen, P. J., Heerings, M., Ruimschotel, R., Hussaarts, A., Duyverman, L., van der Zande, A., & … Visser, L. H. (2016). Intensive social cognitive treatment (can do treatment) with participation of support partners in persons with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis: Observation of improved self-efficacy, quality of life, anxiety and depression 1 year later. BMC Research Notes, 91-8. doi:10.1186/s13104-016-2173-5

Lee, S. (2016) Why can’t I stick to my diet: The what-the-hell effect explained. Sohee Fit. Retrieved from http://www.soheefit.com/what-the-hell/