Researchers say practicing healthy behaviors can actually improve your self-control

January 24, 2013

You can train your body, your mind ... and your willpower? That's according to a new study by researchers at The Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center, who say that with a little practice, it may be possible to strengthen and improve your self-control – and lose more weight.

The Miriam research team found that individuals with more – or self-control – lost more weight, were more physically active, consumed fewer calories from fat and had better attendance at group meetings. The same was true for participants who experienced an increase in self-control during a six-month behavioral weight loss treatment program. Results of the study are published online by the journal Obesity Research and Clinical Practice in advance of print publication.

While the findings may seem obvious, lead author Tricia M. Leahey, Ph.D., of The Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Research Center, explains there have been surprisingly few studies focusing on the impact of self-control on weight loss.

"Of course it makes sense that if you have more 'willpower' you'll do better in a weight loss program; however, this is surprisingly understudied," she says. "Our study is the first to examine whether practicing acts of self-control during weight loss is linked to an increase in self-control and better weight loss outcomes, although other research has demonstrated this effect in the area of ."

Leahey added that the current study suggests self-control, or willpower, is like "building a muscle."

The video will load shortly
Lead author Tricia Leahey, Ph.D., from the Miriam Hospital in Providencen, R.I., discusses the findings of her study that suggests practicing healthy behaviors can improve your self-control. Credit: Lifespan

"The more you 'exercise' it by eating a low fat diet, working out even when you don't feel like it, and going to group meetings when you'd rather stay home, the more you'll increase and strengthen your self-control 'muscle' and quite possibly lose more weight and improve your ," adds Leahey.

Leahey led two preliminary studies to examine the role of self-control in a behavioral weight loss treatment program. The first study involved 40 individuals participating in a six-month behavioral weight loss intervention. The intervention included weekly sessions led by dietitians, exercise physiologists and/or behavioral psychologists, as well as private weigh-ins. All participants were given a reduced calorie, ; a physical activity prescription aimed at increasing their activity minutes; and instruction in behavior change strategies, such as relapse prevention.

At the end of the session, researchers tested participants' global self-control with a handgrip task, a commonly used tool that measures how long participants can hold onto and squeeze a handgrip. During the task, participants experience "aversive stimuli," such as cramping, pain and discomfort, and have to override the desire to end the uncomfortable task in order to achieve their goal, which was to squeeze the grip at a certain intensity level for as long as possible.

The second study extended the findings of the first by examining whether changes in self-control were associated with treatment adherence and weight loss outcomes. Twenty-three participants enrolled in a six-month behavioral weight loss program similar to that in the first study, and completed the same objective measure of self-control – this time at both pre- and post-treatment.

Researchers found that participants in both studies who achieved a 10 percent weight loss – which can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses linked to obesity – had greater self-control compared to those who did not achieve such a weight loss.

Also, individuals in the second study who demonstrated increases in self-control from pre- to post-treatment achieved a significantly higher weight loss, attended more , engaged in more minutes of physical activity and ate a healthier diet.

"Our findings suggest that self-control is potentially malleable and the practice of inhibiting impulses may help people lose weight, eat healthier and increase their physical activity," she says. "Future weight loss treatments may consider targeting , or willpower, as a way to enhance outcomes."

Explore further: Weight loss can be contagious, study suggests

More information: This paper, "A Preliminary investigation of the role of self-control in behavioral weight loss treatment," was published online ahead of print in Obesity Research and Clinical Practice on January 21, 2013.

Related Stories

Weight loss can be contagious, study suggests

February 14, 2012
Is weight loss "contagious"? According to a new study published online in the journal Obesity, teammates in a team-based weight loss competition significantly influenced each other's weight loss, suggesting that shedding ...

Health coaches could be key to successful weight loss, study suggests

July 30, 2012
Coaches can help athletes score touchdowns and perfect their golf swing, but can they also influence weight loss? Researchers from The Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center say health coaches could ...

'Love your body' to lose weight

July 18, 2011
Almost a quarter of men and women in England and over a third of adults in America are obese. Obesity increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease and can significantly shorten a person's life expectancy. New research ...

Study shows group-based weight loss treatment effective whether led by health professionals or by peer counselors

October 9, 2012
A new National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study conducted at Baruch College and published in Obesity found that overweight and obese adults who participated in three different weight loss treatments, all involving ...

Stepped-care intervention results in weight loss, at lower cost

June 26, 2012
Although a standard behavioral weight loss intervention among overweight and obese adults resulted in greater average weight loss over 18 months, a stepped care intervention resulted in clinically meaningful weight loss that ...

Recommended for you

Study finds 90 percent of American men overfat

July 24, 2017
Does your waist measure more than half your height?

Are sugary drink interventions changing people's behaviour?

July 19, 2017
An evaluation of efforts designed to reduce how many sugary drinks we consume shows some success in changing younger people's habits but warns they cannot be the only way to cut consumption.

Young adult obesity: A neglected, yet essential focus to reverse the obesity epidemic

July 18, 2017
The overall burden of the U.S. obesity epidemic continues to require new thinking. Prevention of obesity in young adults, while largely ignored as a target for prevention and study, will be critical to reversing the epidemic, ...

Weight gain from early to middle adulthood may increase risk of major chronic diseases

July 18, 2017
Cumulative weight gain over the course of early and middle adulthood may increase health risks later in life, according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They found that, compared ...

Study finds children carry implicit bias towards peers who are overweight

June 23, 2017
Even children as young as 9 years old can carry a prejudice against their peers who are overweight, according to a new study led by Duke Health researchers. They might not even realize they feel this way.

Mother's obesity boosts risk for major birth defects: study

June 15, 2017
Children of obese women are more likely to be afflicted by major birth defects, including malformations of the heart and genitals, according to a study published on Thursday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.