“It’s just the way I’m wired.”

You’ve heard this statement before. Heck, you’ve probably even said it once or twice yourself to explain away a misstep or an undesirable habit. A lack of exercise, a few extra pounds, the bacon and chips in your shopping cart … it’s just who you are. You were born this way.

Or were you?

willpower“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” stated Susan B. Roberts, a professor at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the senior author of a study recently published in the journal “Nutrition & Diabetes. “This conditioning happens over time in response to – repeatedly – what is out there in a toxic food environment.”

Through the use of MRI scans, Roberts and her colleagues showed how unhealthy foods wield the power of addiction in our brains’ reward centers. So while we may not have been born this way, many of us haveindeed become wired to prefer food that’s bad for us.

According to the study, however, this can be reversed. It’s possible to retrain our brains (rewire them, if you will) to prefer healthier foods above others – though getting there didn’t involve a magic pill or procedure. Roberts’ subjects were put through a six-month behavioral weight-loss program before such results were realized.

Simple enough? Yeah, right.

While it seems that bad habits can practically create themselves, establishing good, long-term health habits can be incredibly difficult. Even if we’re fully aware that better health habits can reduce our risk of disease and add years to our lives, creating such behaviors takes time, self-control and, most importantly, willpower.

“Lasting lifestyle and behavior changes don’t happen overnight,” said Katherine C. Nordal, Ph.D., executive director for professional practice with the American Psychological Association (APA). “Willpower is a learned skill, not an inherent trait.”

It’s also a trait that grows in strength and reliability the more you use it, says Tricia M. Leahey, Ph.D., of the Miriam Hospital Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in Providence, RI.

“The more you ‘exercise’ [willpower] by eating a low-fat diet, working out even when you don’t feel like it, and going to group meetings rather than staying home, the more you’ll increase and strengthen your self-control ‘muscle’ and quite possibly lose more weight and improve your health,” she said.

food journalRegardless of whether you’re goals are related to diet, exercise, sleep or stress, consider the following five steps for developing healthier habits while exercising your “willpower muscle.”

  • Know Where You’re Going: What’s your goal, and why are you setting it? Close your eyes and imagine you’re already there – a healthier, more energetic person. Whether that moment’s one month or one year away, making this finish line tangible will help strengthen your resolve to get there.
  • Establish a Plan: How will you achieve your goal, and what steps must you take to get there? Will you get up earlier to work out or will you do it over your lunch hour? When will you plan and prepare your meals? What are some roadblocks you may encounter along the way, and how will you handle them? HINT: Map out your goals, then break them down into smaller goals that are easier to achieve.
  • Build on Successes, Don’t Dwell on Failures: What are you good at right now? Build on your current strengths and let them springboard you toward the first goal of your long-term plan. Continue from goal to goal knowing there will be hiccups along the way. If/when you stumble, let your past successes motivate you to get back on track toward your next milestone. Be positive and think patience, not perfection.
  • Have Fun, Grow as a Group: When considering action steps toward your health goals, consider activities that you find fun and enjoyable. If your plan involves cardio workouts, for instance, join a racquetball club. If your goal is to eat healthier, take a group cooking class. When you can, invite close friends and family members on your journey. A positive support system can keep your willpower strong while keeping you accountable.
  • Record and Evaluate: Keep a food and/or fitness journal to help track your progress. Be honest in recording your goals and your day-to-day progress, and be willing to set markers for evaluation along the way (e.g., weekly weight records, calorie counts, BMI, strength assessments, etc.).

And as with any significant health-related lifestyle change, consult your personal physician and/or physical therapist before embarking on your journey. She or he will ensure your plan is safe, sound and catered specifically to your personal health needs.

“The reality is that, with the right guidance, people can build and strengthen the skills they need to make even the toughest lifestyle changes,” said Dr. Karina Davidson, past president of APA’s Division of Healthy Psychology.

 

RESEARCH:

Medical News Today: People Can Learn to Like Healthy Foods, Brain Scans Suggest
Medical News Today: Simple Healthy Habits Decrease Risk of Disease
Medical News Today: Healthy Habits Can Add 15 Years to Your Life
Medical News Today: Training Yourself to Have More Willpower
Medical News Today: APA: Americans Report Willpower and Stress as Key Obstacles to Meeting Health-Related Resolutions
WebMD: Use Your Mind for Fit Behavior Change
American Heart Association: Top 10 Tips to Help Children Develop Healthy Habits
MedicineNet.com: Health Tip – Develop Healthy Habits at Any Age