06/14/2011 08:35 am ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011

The Relationship Between Exercise And Self Control

Self-control is essential for achieving just about any important goal. Resisting temptations (like tasty snacks or cigarettes), ignoring distractions (like your rapidly filling email Inbox or your gossiping coworkers), taking actions you'd really rather not take (like getting on that treadmill or asking your penny-pinching boss for a raise) -- all of these actions require significant self-control. Do you have the willpower to get the job done, or have you found yourself giving in to temptations, distractions and inaction when trying to reach your own goals? If it's the latter, you're not alone. But more importantly, you can do something about it.

It turns out that our capacity for self-control is surprisingly like a muscle -- like a bicep or tricep. And like any muscle, self-control can vary in its strength, not only from person to person, but from moment to moment. Even well-developed biceps sometimes feel like jelly after too much strain and so too does your self-control muscle. Spend all day dealing with distractions, hassles and stressors at work, and it's awfully hard to summon up the willpower to resist the allure of the cocktail, the cigarette or the fully-loaded nacho platter.

The good news is that depletion is only temporary -- after you rest it a while, you will get your strength back. The great news is that if you want more self-control in general, you can get more. And you get more self-control the same way you get bigger muscles: you've got to give it regular workouts.

Do you have a sweet tooth? Try giving up candy, even if weight loss and cavity-prevention are not your goals. Hate exerting yourself physically? Go out and buy one of those handgrips you see the muscle men with at the gym -- even if your goal is to pay your bills on time. In a recent study, psychologist Mark Muraven asked a group of adult men and women to either avoid sweets or use a handgrip over two weeks. The "avoid sweets" group was told to eat as little cake, cookies, candy and other dessert foods as possible. In the handgrip condition, people were given handgrips to take home and asked to hold them twice a day for as long as possible. Both tasks require self-control -- either to resist temptation or to overcome physical discomfort -- so both function as a kind of self-control workout.

At the end of two weeks of sweets-abstinence and handgripping, Muraven found that participants had significantly improved on a difficult computerized concentration task -- having nothing to do with either giving up sweets or using a handgrip -- that required lots of self-control. Just by working their willpower muscle regularly, their self-control strength had increased measurably in a matter of weeks!

In another study, psychologists Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng gave participants a free gym membership and individually-tailored exercise programs (designed by trainers) that included aerobics, free-weights and resistance training. After exercising regularly over the course of two months, these men and women had not only increased their ability to do a variety of laboratory self-control tasks, but also reported that many other areas of their life had improved as well. They smoked fewer cigarettes, drank fewer alcoholic beverages and ate less junk food. They said they were better able to control their tempers and less apt to spend money impulsively. They didn't leave their dishes in the sink, didn't put things off until later, missed fewer appointments and developed better study habits. In fact, every aspect of their lives that involved using some self-control seemed to have improved dramatically. When you exercise, it turns out that it's not just your physical muscles you're building.

Self-control training studies have used many different approaches, from directing people to refrain from cursing, to using their non-dominant hand to open doors and brush their teeth. Even sitting up straight every time it occurs to you can help you build up self-control strength. What all these different methods have in common is that each one forces you to do something you'd rather not do -- to fight the urge to give in, give up or just not bother.

Pick an activity that fits with your life and your goals -- anything that requires you to override an impulse or desire again and again, and add this activity to your daily routine. It will be hard in the beginning, particularly if you aren't used to working your self-control muscle that much. However, I can promise you with complete confidence that it will get easier over time if you hang in there, because your capacity for self-control will grow. When it does, it can impact every aspect of your life for the better.