April 24, 2009

Such self-control!" Sue's friends exclaim when she declines a taste of the double chocolate truffle cheesecake. She enjoys the compliment until midnight -- when she sneaks downstairs and polishes off the last three slices.

"Just a few miles!" Becca tells herself as she climbs into her sweats for a morning run. But instead she spends her exercise hour with a latte and muffin -- and the rest of the day feeling guilty.

"My last cigarette!" announces Lani proudly, lighting up on the veranda to which she has been exiled -- even though, as a graduate of three smoking-cessation courses, she knows that she can't trust her own words.

Nothing makes us feel worse about ourselves than a failure of will. We just know that if we could muster enough determination, we'd be able to kick that bad habit or lose those 10 pounds or get fit at last. And when we can't, we call ourselves losers. But maybe we're being too hard on ourselves, because science is revealing that body chemistry and genes influence more of our actions than we ever imagined.

Trusting in willpower to alter bad health habits, some experts say, is like believing the tooth fairy really delivers dollar bills. "Changing these behaviors involves complex interactions between genes, brain chemistry and lifestyle," explains John Foreyt, Ph.D., a weight-control expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Willpower is just saying no, which is why it doesn't work."

Unfortunately, we've never needed willpower more. Not since the Garden of Eden has temptation been more cunningly marketed. With cheap, high-fat, high-calorie food seldom out of sight, 55 percent of Americans are overweight. Teenagers, especially girls, have begun smoking in record numbers. And no society has ever been more sedentary: 40 percent of adults sit on their bottoms all day, every day. When it comes to improving our own health, good old-fashioned strength of mind doesn't seem to cut it.

Who's in charge here?

Free will may be theoretically possible, but human physiology has an agenda of its own. Chemical pathways between the brain and the rest of the body make sure we eat enough -- and conserve enough energy from our food -- to keep the species going. An enzyme called leptin along with the hormone cholecystokinin, which stimulates digestive juices in the gut, tells us to eat. We may be "wired" for times of scarcity, meaning that our bodies may like to put on fat and hold it in reserve. And it's not surprising that the same pleasure centers in the brain that help us enjoy food are also turned on by drugs and alcohol.

Then there's family inheritance. Genes influence how our muscles respond to exercise, how much energy we burn, where we store fat, our metabolic response to overeating, even our preference for spices or tolerance for ice cream. Some populations seem to carry a "thrifty" gene that preserves fat stores during famine, a questionable legacy when you live near a McDonald's and get paid to sit at a desk all day.

But even experts who understand the physiological influences on behavior don't claim that humans are helpless victims of body chemistry. In fact, some worry about the recent focus on genes and hormones to the exclusion of self-reliance. "The danger is that people will use the new research to excuse their overeating or undermine their motivation to build healthy habits," says Albert Bandura, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and author of Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (W.H. Freeman & Co., 1997).

Changing for good

Most people, when they first pay attention to their health, start by taking a hard line. They starve themselves for a day or spend hours on the treadmill or go cold turkey on a 10-cup-a-day coffee habit. They've proved they've got willpower, but check back in a week -- by then, they'll have returned to their old ways.

"The worst thing you can do is depend on willpower for more than a day," says Foreyt. "In the short run, it can put you in a high motivational state to deprive yourself in a diet or to start exercising or to quit smoking. But in the long run, you need to design a program that will change your life in small ways you can live with."

Willpower ultimately fails because it's too much like punishment. "I don't know about you, but I hate the idea of being constrained," says Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., Guthrie chair of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. "It's human nature. As soon as we're told we can't have something, we want it more than ever."

The self-punishing approach to weight control can be especially counterproductive. A recent study reported in Science found that the more lab rats were deprived of food, the more pleasure they took in eating. Everyone knows that feeling: After suffering the grinding, artificial self-control you use to keep from wolfing down a candy bar, the first bite tastes better than ever.

Better to be kind to yourself. Instead of shouting down your impulses, honor them, accept that you have them and find a better way to direct them.

Decide to decide

The decision to address your health is a kind of commitment. It puts you on record, if only to yourself, that you will do what you've decided to do. "Once you've made that commitment, you can begin to identify the barriers to your success and then problem-solve realistic strategies to overcome them," says John Jakicic, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, R.I.

To start, monitor what you're doing now so you have a baseline to compare your progress to, Bandura suggests. "After that you can set goals, but they must be easy, concrete, short-term goals that can serve as markers for your success. The more goals you reach," he says, "the more you will see yourself as successful."

Say you want to lower your cholesterol. You might start with something as simple as not eating red meat on Mondays. Then pay attention to what happens. Could you resist your usual lunch-hour hamburger? If not, why? Was the mistake trying to order a salad in the city's best burger joint? "The trick," says Bandura, "is finding where, when and why you get off track, then overcoming the impediment."

As you become more successful, you become more motivated, Bandura says. Almost unconsciously, you begin to set up the circumstances that allow you even greater successes. And after a while you won't even need to think about your new, improved habits. Once you've been taking that morning run for three months, for example, you won't wonder if you can do it. You won't think about when you might do it. You won't remind yourself why you should do it. You'll just do it.

To everyone else, it will look like you've got willpower.

How to Salvage Eating Self-Control

"No one strategy works for everyone," says Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., author of Volumetrics: Feel Full on Fewer Calories (HarperCollins, 2000). "You need to discover your own. Some people drink water, some chew gum. If you believe your personal strategy works, it will." Her tips:

* Divert your attention. Deflect your urge to eat with exercise or other pleasurable activities.

* Tweak your portions. Increase the percentage of vegetables in your pasta; you won't notice that your usual portion has fewer calories.

* Plan ahead.

Don't put yourself in a position where commitment won't work: Avoid restaurant buffet lines, stock your fridge with healthy foods, have a light meal before you go to a party.

Healthy habits

"The problem with willpower is that it doesn't give you a guide for change," says Albert Bandura, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Stanford University. "You need to develop your own self-management skills." His advice:

* Start small. Each successful baby step increases your self-confidence.

* Become your own coach and cheerleader. Accomplishment is rooted in the core belief that you can do it.

* Plan ahead. Do you overeat when you're bored, or when you're watching TV? Do you skip exercise when you're depressed, or when you're short on time? Do you drink when you're anxious, or when you're with other drinkers? Learn to avoid vulnerable situations.

When Exercise Willpower Wanes

"If you don't have your environment and infrastructure in place, all the willpower in the world won't work," says John Jakicic, Ph.D., of Brown University's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center. His hints:

* Exercise intermittently. You don't have to do it all at once; 10 minutes here, 20 there will add up.

* Make it convenient. If you can't get here from there, you won't go. Use home equipment or find a gym, park, trail or road nearby.

* Plan ahead. Have an alternative workout in place for when your schedule changes.