The Question

Working Out Can Boost Your Willpower

You know your neighbor who's out for a jog every single morning? How is it that she can get herself out of bed at such an ungodly hour, then throw on her running shoes and hit the road? And worse yet, do it all with a big, sickening smile? It's enough to make you want an extra helping of bacon, just out of spite. Well, it turns out that the more she runs, the easier it is for her to will herself out of bed — and she probably has an easier time turning down fried breakfast foods, too.

Related Video: Why Is It So Hard to Start Working Out?

Beefing Up Your Self-Control

Wishing that you had the gumption to get out of bed and join your irritatingly chipper neighbor won't work. But just gritting your teeth and doing it might. Yes, it's a catch-22, but a 2016 study indicated that the more exercise you get, the more willpower you gain.

Over the course of seven weeks, participants in the study were asked to walk or run at a pace slightly above their comfort zone. They were then given a series of hypothetical choices to test their willingness to forgo instant gratification for a reward that would pay off in the long run ("Would you rather have $10 today or $15 tomorrow?").

Across the board, the researchers found that being forced to push their limits increased participants' willingness to take the delayed gratification option. In fact, according to corresponding author Michael Sofis, "Simply showing up to the workouts was strongly correlated with improvements in self-controlled decision-making." So if you're struggling to find the motivation to work out at the gym, the answer might be to simply show up in your workout clothes until that motivation finds you.

There are just a few caveats, however. First, the study didn't use a control group, and its participants were almost entirely women, so a larger-scale version might reveal more about exactly how this phenomenon works for everybody. And second, the delayed gratification choices were purely hypothetical, and most of us probably care more about the behaviors that will cause us to actually make the right choices instead of just saying that we would. Still, it's a promising result, and if it gets us to the gym, it's probably a good thing in the long run.

Investing In Happiness

The "marshmallow test" is a classic example of a choice between instant gratification and greater long-term rewards — will a child eat a marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and be rewarded with even more marshmallows? Exercise is in its own way a marshmallow test. Would you rather watch "Face/Off" for the sixteenth time now, or start a running regimen that in the long-term will improve your health, lengthen your life, and give you the chance to keep watching "Face/Off" over and over, well into your twilight years? As it turns out, how you do on your own personal marshmallow test says a lot about you. 30 years after the original test, the children who passed the test were found to have earned higher SAT scores and had lower BMIs than those who couldn't help themselves from eating the marshmallow in front of them.

Interestingly, a new version of the marshmallow test sought to explore for the first time how cultural differences could affect how children did on the test. When pitted against German children, 4-year-olds from Cameroon blew the competition out of the water. Not only were they able to wait longer, but they did so quite happily. Where the German kids squirmed, cried, and tore out their hair, the Cameroonian kids simply waited patiently for their reward — some even fell asleep. The jury is still out on the reasons for the difference, but researchers think it might have something to do with different parenting styles. According to study leader Bettina Lamm, "Nso children [from Cameroon] are required very early to control their emotions, especially negative emotions." We're thinking that the next study should involve a racetrack with a pile of marshmallows at the finish line.

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Exercise gives you a mental boost far beyond willpower. Explore more of its brain benefits in "Running Is My Therapy: Relieve Stress and Anxiety, Fight Depression, Ditch Bad Habits, and Live Happier" by Scott Douglas. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 2, 2017

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