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Miracle Pills and Muscle Drills: How to Train Your Brain to Think Healthy

01/31/2013 09:10 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2013

"Is Dr. Oz doing America more harm than good?" asks an article in The New Yorker this week. Although television's most famous doctor emphasizes education and healthy habits, he's also known to stick his brand -- or at least his endorsement -- on a wide range of profitable diet supplements and "miracle cures."

On the one hand, some of Oz's recommended supplements do appear to be linked to health benefits -- for instance, omega-3 fatty acids seem to boost brain performance; and pterostilbene, the active ingredient in Oz's heavily promoted product ChromaDex, seems to help reduce blood pressure. By the same token, though, could our national obsession with quick fixes, one-step cures and bullet-pointed tips be distracting us from making long-term commitments to health?

Staying educated about important medical discoveries could save your life someday; there's no doubt about that. But getting educated about your own mind and brain may save you -- and your doctors -- a lot of work and worry in the long run.

Taking the "long route" isn't always easy, of course -- which is why so many of us are drawn to stimulants, sleep aids and anti-aging supplements like ChromaDex. Even for the strong-willed, committing to an earlier bedtime or a healthier diet takes time, energy and focus -- all of which are often in short supply. So a few years ago, when researchers started reporting that willpower is a limited resource, many of us weren't surprised. Suddenly, it seemed, we had a scientific excuse to veg out and snack on ice cream after a stressful day at the office: We were replenishing our willpower for tomorrow's struggles.

Still, counterexamples to this theory kept cropping up. One intriguing study pitted people who believed willpower was an unlimited resource against those who believed their willpower had limits. As the participants worked through a gauntlet of mentally taxing tasks, those who believed in unlimited willpower maintained their concentration much longer than those who didn't -- though, after a few hours, even the believers found themselves unable to stay focused.

In other words, belief in unlimited willpower is definitely a plus -- but even the most determined mental athletes can only push themselves so far. And this realization raised another question: If belief and determination could boost willpower, could a training regimen boost it even higher?

A new study suggests not only that training may strengthen willpower, but also that willpower you amp up in one area of your life may translate directly to other areas. As the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice reports, a team of researchers led by Brown University's Tricia Leahey tracked the progress of 40 dieters, examining factors like weight loss, exercise routines and food choices. Then the scientists gave the dieters a challenge: Squeeze a hand-grip as tightly as possible for as long as possible.

As you might expect, people who'd stuck to their diets and exercise regimens held onto the grip the tightest and longest, despite arm cramps and other distractions. What's interesting, though, is what happened after the researchers sent the participants back for a second round of training and gave them the hand-grip test again: The people who'd developed greater self-control on the second round were able to grip significantly tighter and longer than they had on their first try. The self-control and focus they'd developed in weight loss translated seamlessly to the grip test.

Willpower, then, isn't so much like wakefulness -- a resource that inevitably runs out over time -- as it's like muscle strength: Pretty limited the first time we apply it to a new task, but capable of growing with practice.

"Our findings suggest that self-control is potentially malleable," Leahey says. What's more, these results hint that success in one self-improvement area -- quitting nail-biting, say; or keeping ahead of clutter -- can improve your shot at kicking a cigarette habit, cutting sweets out of your diet or watching less TV. Willpower may ultimately be a limited resource, it's true - but it's also a surprisingly versatile one.

So next time you're about to order that bottle of "miracle" supplements, take a moment to ask yourself what you truly want: A quick fix, or lasting change.