Rough day at work? You won't feel like exercising

Have you ever sat down to work on a crossword puzzle only to find that afterwards you haven't the energy to exercise? Or have you come home from a rough day at the office with no energy to go for a run?

A new study, published today in Psychology and Health, reveals that if you use your willpower to do one task, it depletes you of the willpower to do an entirely different task.

"Cognitive tasks, as well as emotional tasks such as regulating your emotions, can deplete your self-regulatory capacity to ," says Kathleen Martin Ginis, associate professor of at McMaster University, and lead author of the study.

Martin Ginis and her colleague Steven Bray used a Stroop test to deplete the self-regulatory capacity of volunteers in the study. (A Stroop test consists of words associated with colours but printed in a different colour. For example, "red" is printed in blue ink.) Subjects were asked to say the colour on the screen, trying to resist the to blurt out the printed word instead of the colour itself.

"After we used this cognitive task to deplete participants' self-regulatory capacity, they didn't exercise as hard as participants who had not performed the task. The more people "dogged it" after the cognitive task, the more likely they were to skip their exercise sessions over the next 8 weeks. "You only have so much willpower."

Still, she doesn't see that as an excuse to let people loaf on the sofa.

"There are strategies to help people rejuvenate after their self-regulation is depleted," she says. "Listening to music can help; and we also found that if you make specific plans to exercise—in other words, making a commitment to go for a walk at 7 p.m. every evening—then that had a high rate of success."

She says that by constantly challenging yourself to resist a piece of chocolate cake, or to force yourself to study an extra half-hour each night, then you can actually increase your self-regulatory capacity.

"Willpower is like a muscle: it needs to be challenged to build itself," she says.

The study was made possible through funding by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Source: McMaster University (news : web)

Citation: Rough day at work? You won't feel like exercising (2009, September 24) retrieved 23 October 2019 from
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Sep 24, 2009
This goes against my own experience. If I come home tired after a day at the office, where I've exerted myself mentally, I get great pleasure and relief by going for a walk. And I know this will give me pleasure, so I don't have to FORCE myself to do it.

I haven't read the article (c'mon, physorg, include links to the original material!), but they seem to focus on willpower, which is a very complex thing. By focusing solely on conscious decision-making, they miss the mark, because so much of our motivations are unconscious. That's Freud's main point. The will doesn't get "depleted", as the authors suggest. Rather, it is composed of many different forces, all competing for supremacy. Just because one of them is "conscious" doesn't mean it's the most important one.

The authors' focus on willpower shows the influence of the protestant work ethic, which is a moral position, not a great basis for psychological science.


Sep 24, 2009
This simply builds on previous research showing willpower can be depleted. It's nothing that controversial and is becoming well established. Since I exercise twice a day this has much relevance for me. I agree that establishing a set routine makes it easier to slog to the gym than otherwise. I wonder if the effect would extend the other way. That would determine whether people should do mental tasks before exercising or after, though I'm sure most do it before.

Sep 24, 2009
It's not just exercise. My GF gets quite flustered & irritable under pressure, which would figure if she's run out of willpower for dealing with the situations pressuring her.

I think she'll like the choc cake solution, but it may cost many cakes their lives, bravely sacrificed in futile attempts to save her willpower. (-:

Sep 24, 2009
It matches with observations that countries with high levels of stress have less exercise.

Sedentarism is yet another side-effect of a workaholic, highly stressed out lifestyle.

Sep 24, 2009
And as we know from studying Chinese Medicine, Willpower comes from the Kidneys!

Sep 25, 2009
I've found that I do indeed feel physically tired when I've used my brain a lot at work. Not sure if that's down to willpower. I think it's just over-excertion, be it mental or physical.

Sep 25, 2009
If this wasn't a warning to get the hell off the gaming and the hell off the forums with heated debates and the hell off the television, period - then I don't know what is.

Recover you will power and your life, save your energies for what is important. It takes time to get it back, to get your groove back (to re-orient the mind) - but it most certainly works.

But as the Buddhists and modern seekers say: 'It's all in your mind'. Monkey see, monkey react.

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