On willpower

Tank Green/ July 7, 2023/ Health

Earlier this week, I was helping a woman with some basic calisthenics exercises in the park. She saw me doing some bar work and asked for help. She is eight years younger than me, and started exercising this year. She runs 4-5 times per week, including the park run, but she isn’t getting the results she wants, both in terms of how she looks and how she feels.

Aside from the fact that she is running too much and needs to concentrate more on strength training to build muscle mass, the crazy thing is that she knows exactly why she is failing to meet her goal: her diet. She knows very well that you can’t out run a bad diet, but yet she still can’t stop herself eating loads of cake. (Her words.) Then she said that I must have good willpower.

This really stuck with me as I don’t perceive willpower as having anything to do with why I don’t eat like crap. Willpower, for me, symbolises a struggle: some heroic battle I have with myself to stop myself doing something which I know is bad for me, but which I still want to do anyway. I think especially about how much willpower I needed to stop smoking, for instance. That was literally one of the hardest things I have ever done: to battle the psychological and physical cravings for a cigarette. And frankly, despite quitting in 2003, it is still a battle I have to engage in every now and then, and likely will for the rest of my life. I only won because I deferred my next cigarette until I am 85.

There is no battle with me and food. Eating healthily is simply a choice I have made, and continue to make daily, in service of a goal: feeling and (hopefully) being healthy. Despite ostensibly knowing how delicious cake is, I don’t actually want to eat it because to do so would detract from my goal of being healthy, feeling good, and having ample energy to work out, be present, and enjoy life. It’s not willpower, it’s consistency.

Almost everything I do is in service of my goal of health: mental, emotional, and physical. To be honest, it doesn’t even make sense to separate out components of health in that tripartite way, as they each impact on the other. If you are physically unhealthy, it negatively impacts on your psychological and emotional state; if you are physically healthy, it positively impacts on your psychological and emotional state. Repeat for the other two components.

I suppose a few things are going on here. Firstly, unlike with smoking, my relationship with food is not about stopping myself doing anything. I take a positive approach to food: it is not about what I can’t eat, it is about what can I eat to assist with reaching my goal of tip top health. Despite having an objectively restrictive diet in terms of what I eat, I don’t really notice or see the restrictions. I see only the nutrient rich foods I know will nourish me and maintain my health. Same with exercise: no willpower is involved. I exercise 3-4 times per week a) because I like it, and b) because it’s what I need to do to be healthy and strong.

Possibly the thread that links my smoking to her cake is addiction. I know many people suffer from an addiction to sugar, and despite having a sweet tooth, this is something I have managed to escape. Mainly because I did a year of Home Economics / Nutrition A Level when I was 16 and the teacher put the fear of god into me about how I would eat myself into Type 2 Diabetes if I wasn’t careful. There again though, even back then, was this desire to be healthy.

I do think, deep down, a great many people simply don’t have this desire to be healthy. I think many people take a medical approach to their bodies, and believe that it can be fixed, or symptoms controlled, by medicine. I don’t think medicine has anything to do with health. I think medicine is ill-health masked and/or controlled by drugs. That sounds shit to me and I want to avoid it as long as I can. In fact, everyone I know who takes a medicalised approach to their bodies are very bad advertisements for medicine, in my opinion. Their quality of life is often incredibly low, yet they resist doing simple, pro-active, empowering, and non-harmful things which may help them, like, for instance, cleaning up their diet.

I read this APA article on willpower, and I simply don’t recognise my approach to diet / health in it. There is no delayed gratification, no self-control, no overriding of unwanted impulses. I do recognise my approach to quitting smoking though. I think then, that what people need to focus on when it comes to their diet is: unswerving honesty and consistency. I think people need to very deeply and honestly assess what it is that they want: is it to be healthy, or not? If it is, then focus on making your actions consistent with that goal. If there is an addition involved, defer the next slice of cake (etc.) until you’re 85. Otherwise, stop battling yourself to do, or not do, things you don’t want. Admit that you don’t really care about your health, and then happily and consciously eat that fucking cake.