Fitness Discipline: 3 Ways to Boost Willpower & Stay on Track

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Bigger Leaner Stronger" by Michael Matthews. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you neutralize the urgency of temptations? What are some ways you can minimize distractions while you exercise?

Even if you’re motivated to get and stay fit and have an excellent plan to do it, temptations can creep in and get you off track. Michael Matthews, a certified personal trainer and the founder of Legion Athletics, shares three tips to help you build up your willpower while you build up your body.

Keep reading for this practical advice that will improve your fitness discipline.

Fitness Discipline

You likely have some motivating reasons for getting stronger and healthier. However, immediate temptations, such as craving your favorite junk food or skipping exercise to play video games, can still derail your fitness efforts if you’re not careful. To make long-lasting progress, you must strengthen your fitness discipline and avoid temptations that can undermine your efforts. Matthews gives some tips on how to deal with temptations when they arise.

#1: Use the 10 Minute Rule

Wait 10 minutes to act on your cravings rather than try to suppress them. Suppressing cravings only makes them stronger. For example, if you’re itching to order fast food, accept that you have a craving, but force yourself to wait 10 minutes before making the order. Matthews argues that you’ll find that the temptation often becomes more manageable after 10 minutes simply because the urgency is gone.

Similarly, if you’re dreading a task (like exercising), force yourself to do it for at least 10 minutes. You’ll likely find it easier to continue once you’ve started.

(Shortform note: While you’re waiting out your cravings or forcing yourself to exercise for 10 minutes, it might help to practice breathing exercises. According to Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct, slowing your breathing to four to six breaths per minute engages your prefrontal cortex and boosts your heart rate variability (the differences in time intervals between heartbeats), which improves your focus and self-control. Slowing your breathing for a period of time can also significantly decrease hunger afterward, making it easier for you to resist your cravings.)

#2: Take Precautionary Measures

Matthews suggests you remove sources of temptation that might derail your fitness journey so it’s harder to give in. For example, leave your cell phone in a locker while at the gym so you don’t get distracted from your workout. This allows you to avoid testing your willpower altogether.

(Shortform note: Author of Atomic Habits James Clear says that instead of avoiding temptations, you can use them as a source of motivation. He recommends temptation bundling, in which you pair a difficult task with a tempting activity so you’re more incentivized to do the challenging task. For example, you might allow yourself to watch your favorite TV show only while prepping healthy meals, which makes you more motivated to prepare meals. To create a temptation bundle, make one column of things you enjoy doing and another of things you should be doing more often. Then go through the two lists to see if any of them can be done together.)

#3: Avoid Justifying Bad Decisions

Matthews writes that people often succumb to moral licensing, which is thinking you’ve earned the right to do something bad because you’ve done something good. For example, if you finish a strenuous workout, you might reason that it’s okay to “reward” your good behavior with some junk food. To avoid moral licensing, Matthews recommends that you stop labeling your actions as good or bad and remind yourself of the reasons you want to get fit.

Be Conscious of Your Small Decisions

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal writes that we struggle with willpower and temptation because we’re governed by two competing minds: One that’s driven by immediate pleasure and one that’s driven by long-term goals. Often, we cave in to temptation simply because we thoughtlessly obey an impulse sent out by the immediate pleasure-seeking mind (such as reaching into a bag of chips over and over).

According to McGonigal, the best way to improve your willpower is to pay attention to the small decisions you make. You can pay better attention to your small decisions, in turn, by meditating for five minutes every day. She argues that meditation improves self-control by increasing blood flow to your prefrontal cortex and enhancing your ability to make good decisions.

However, paying attention to your small decisions isn’t enough to improve your willpower if you justify your bad decisions. McGonigal agrees with Matthews that you can avoid moral licensing by reminding yourself of your bigger, longer-term goals, citing a study that showed how this strategy works. In this study, the researchers asked people to talk in different ways about a time they resisted temptation and then offered them a chance to indulge. People who were asked why they resisted temptation in the past were more likely to resist the current temptation than those asked only to describe the instance of resisting temptation. The researchers theorized that people who only reflect on whether an act was “good” or “bad” (resisting temptation or giving in to it) but not on why they did it are more likely to indulge afterward. This suggests that if you feel tempted to gorge on junk food after doing something “good” like exercising, it may be helpful to ask yourself why you exercised in the first place.
Fitness Discipline: 3 Ways to Boost Willpower & Stay on Track

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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