Health and Wellbeing Exercises

Understanding self-control: How to maximize our success in establishing and maintaining healthy behaviors

Are you a morning person? You know, that (somewhat loathsome 😂🙈) super chipper, classically bright-eyed and bushy-tailed creature who seems to spring from bed fully functioning and wildly energized? I am not one of these beings by nature (though I’m working on it!), but I do live with two such humans. Both my husband and my oldest son are truly awake upon just opening their eyes. My son will literally blink his eyes open, smiling ear-to-ear at the prospect of greeting a new day, and proceed to jump out of bed, calling “Mommy, let’s play!!” It’s adorable, and slightly alarming. I would accredit this to him being 3, but my husband is the. Exact. Same. Way. Our younger, 9 month old, son wakes up more like me. He spends a little while looking around, blinking sleepily, trying to get his bearings and deciding if he’s up for dealing with being around the rest of us yet. Then he demands to be fed before he’s willing to participate in the day. We are pretty much exactly alike in this regard. 🤣 Those of you who know me may be saying, “But Ashley! You’re always up at 6 a.m. and you teach fitness classes at 8:15, three mornings a week!” This is true friends, I get up at 6 everyday (weekends included!) to ensure that I have time for meditation before my whole house wakes up (see above for how quickly that process goes 😄!) and so that I have time to get ready for my day. This getting ready process includes coffee, by the way. After I meditate, I have coffee and breakfast with the family before getting dressed and prepared for whatever activities that day holds. Now, here’s what you’re probably wondering. Didn’t you just say that you’re NOT a morning person? I did. I said it, and I meant it. Emphatically. But here’s the deal. I’ve learned a few things over the course of my fitness journey about how to ensure that I set myself up to have the best possible day. There are a number of factors at play here that are worth discussion. No worries, keep following along and you’ll undoubtedly see posts dedicated to these topics in the future. For example, there’s the importance of a meditation/mindfulness practice, establishing a sleep hygiene schedule (going to bed and waking up at as close to the same time everyday as possible), eating breakfast (which is a healthy habit that it took me a while to cultivate!), and, the element that today’s post will delve into, using my knowledge of the concept of self-control to maximize my ability to succeed in achieving my health and fitness goals.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that you’re able to complete tasks much easier earlier in the day? How the same task that’s no big deal in the morning takes all of your patience and energy to complete in the early afternoon and by evening if it’s not done, it just gets moved to tomorrow’s to-do list because you just cannot even pretend to do it tonight? Why is that? Essentially, there are four things that psychologists have recognized about self-control that can help answer that question for us and help us understand the role of self-control as far as establishing healthy behaviors. Here’s a summary of the information I’ve been studying about self-control from my ACE Health Coach Manual.

First, it’s limited. Here is a scholarly article specifically addressing how self-control is related to eating behaviors. Simply put, even the most motivated and dedicated among us have only so much self-control. Therefore, the less self-control a healthy behavior requires, the more likely we are to succeed. Let’s say for example, you keep a box of cookies out on the kitchen counter. Not eating the cookies every time you walk into the kitchen and see them requires a significant amount of self-control. If, however, you put the cookies away on a top shelf of a cabinet or pantry, they’re less visible and you have to make a concerted effort to choose to eat a cookie. So, moving the cookies means less depletion of our resource of self-control and makes us more likely to succeed at our health and fitness goal of choosing healthy snack options.

Second, once a behavior becomes a habit we need very little self-control to engage in the behavior. It’s clear then that we should strive to turn healthy behaviors into habits so that it requires very little effort on our part to continue engaging in the behavior. As a personal example, I use a sleep hygiene alarm to notify me 15 minutes prior to when I need to go to bed (10 p.m.) in order to get 8 hours of sleep and wake up at 6 a.m. At first, I really relied on both the bedtime and morning alarms and I had to make a real effort both to go to sleep and to wake up. Now that it’s a habit, not only has my internal clock regulated itself, I find I fall asleep and wake up with greater ease. Let me be clear here, I still love coffee, and I’m not giving it up. 😄☕️ However, never in my life have I woken up as easily and quickly as I do now, so I’ve made definite progress and I choose to celebrate that!

Third, dealing with stress depletes our self-control. We use up the emotional energy needed to change our behaviors when we are dealing with stress. So, it’s a good idea to choose a relatively low-stress time in your life to alter a behavior. Realistically, if we look for stressors we can find them everyday in everything we do. So, be careful to approach this with the right mindset. In other words, don’t use this as an excuse and say, “I’m already too stressed out to begin changing my unhealthy habits into heathy behaviors!” This is about being smart in your goal setting. This is about not committing to going to an exercise class three days a week right before you leave for a two week vacation. You know you’ll be out of your routine and you’re unlikely to exercise under those circumstances, which will lead to you not meeting your goal. So don’t choose this time to try to establish a new behavior that requires you to use lots of self-control. Rather, set yourself up for success by deciding to go on your vacation, enjoy yourself, and begin the 3 day a week exercise class when you’re back home.

Lastly, here’s some good news! You get a new shot at it everyday! It seems that self-control is renewed each day and is highest in the mornings. This is why, if we choose to exercise first thing in the morning, we are more likely to succeed in getting in our workout than if we tell ourselves we will workout after we’ve already had a long, busy day. This also ties right back in with my original example of creating “morning person” habits for myself. By relying on my self-control when it’s strongest, I’ve managed to create some real, positive changes that have had a notable effect on my life, attitude, outlook, and overall health and wellbeing.

That brings us to this week’s exercise. Identify a healthy behavior that you know requires some effort on your part and choose to do that first thing in the morning at least 3 days this week. Commit to eating breakfast if you don’t. Or get in a run first thing in the morning. Go to an exercise class. Or do some food prep for the day so there’s zero temptation to eat fast-food. Now, I know we all have work schedules and kids and families and life in general to deal with, but this is how it’s done. We have to do the work to get the benefit! Furthermore, once you get going, it just gets easier and easier (refer back to that second principle, habits require very little self-control)! That’s why I’m confident that once you begin to see the impact it has in your life, you’ll find that your healthy behavior quickly becomes an integrated part of your overall healthy lifestyle!

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