Stress and willpower

It is 4:53 am and my alarm begins to softly play. It is not startling…I have tried waking up to Disturbed’s Down with the Sickness, to Achmed the Dead Terrorist screaming EYEEEE KEEEELLL YOU!!!, and so on, and surprise, surprise, it does not either (a) put me in a good mood or (b) make me a monster in the gym. It does, however, make me a monster around the house, so that approach has been mothballed.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I am now using the Sleep Cycles app. I am very happy with it so far. It wakes me at a time when my body is physiologically ready to wake up and that seems to make a big difference. I am about six weeks into this odyssey of going all in on my fitness efforts, and the thing that stands out, though, is that I seem to be able to make things stick. For example, I have never been able to get myself to take pills on a routine basis. But for the past three weeks or so, I am taking supplements twice per day, without missing a day (except for the one week of out of town training where I forgot all of them…not so good). I am sticking to a nutrition plan and recording everything without fail in a food journal so that I can keep close tabs on my calories and macronutrients. I am hitting the gym regularly, but in what is a major change for me, I am quick to convert a planned workout into a rest day if something does not feel right. Then, instead of beating myself up for a lack of willpower or drive or grit, I simply focus on getting better rest and nutrition and look for new ways to make sure I do not feel that way as often.

The workout this morning was, I believe, an example of the success of this pathway. I hit the gym at 0615 ready to work. After working up to a 3 rep max of push presses, we started the main workout, which was 21, 15, and 9 reps for time of the couplet 70# kettlebell swings and 135# front squats. I chose to use the RX weights and went for it. We had a 10 minute time cap and I hit the cap with 4 reps left, which I finished, with an approximate time of 11:00…probably a bit faster but I will round up.

My joints are feeling great and my body is feeling energetic. I am certainly not overtrained. I feel like I am starting to finally balance recovery and workload. It has been hard to do, but I am getting there.

So what is the general principle I want to discuss today? As much as this may seem to be heading a different direction than the above conversation, I want to talk about how stress affects our habits.

  • Principle #3. When an individual is stressed, they revert to activities that are strongly associated with pleasure, security, or other positive sensations. Quitting cigarettes, for example, will often last until the first major life stressor, and then if there is not a solid alternative habit in place, the smoking will recur. As pedestrian as a Diet Coke addiction may sound, I have successfully given it up twice and started drinking again during stressful events: when our house was broken into, and when I was taking my oral board exam.

So how does management of stress and our habits relate to what I was talking about earlier and fitness in general? Well, it is my opinion that fitness itself is a habit. Or more accurately, it is a collection of habits and behaviors that make small, steady positive deposits every day in our “bank account” of good health and a capable body. And recognition that stress can derail those efforts is a huge key to ensuring that this does not happen.

An absolutely fascinating (and evil) experiment was performed by Roy Baumeister and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University in 1996, documenting that willpower is a finite resource just like muscular endurance, and can be exhausted if stressed. Two groups of subjects were placed in a room with a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of radishes. The control subjects were allowed to eat the cookies. The experimental subjects, however, were instructed to eat only the radishes. They could look at, smell, and pine for the cookies all they wanted, they just could not eat them. After a period of time, they were taken to another room and given a cover story about killing some time waiting for their taste buds to renormalize (as they were under the impression that the study was researching taste), and given an impossible puzzle to solve. Those who ate the cookies spent over twice as much time working on the impossible puzzle compared to those forced to eat radishes. The conclusion was that willpower is finite and can be exhausted.

So how do we apply this to getting fit? The first step is to acknowledge that you cannot go from couch potato to Spartan in one step. You are not designed to be able to handle that type of stress. If you are changing your nutrition from primarily fast food to a more healthy alternative, recognize the effects of stress. Selecting grilled chicken breast instead of a hamburger is stressful! More so for some than for others. But it is the radish instead of the cookie approach. Therefore, if you manage to improve your lunch, that may come at a cost to your willpower that will be noticable later. Headed to the gym to attempt Fran (21-15-9 reps of 95# thrusters and pullups)? Also proud of yourself because you ate bland oatmeal for breakfast, a simple salad and grilled chicken for lunch, and drank nothing but water all day? Be aware that you are attempting not one but two achievements that will place serious demands on your willpower resolve. You may not perform as well in the gym as you thought you might.

What is the answer? Go back to the fast food? Skip the gym and go get a massage instead? The answer, actually, might be yes, to a degree. At least at the start. Recognize that we are wired to respond to rewards. Demanding too much of ourselves without concomitant awards is going to lead to short-lived resolutions. What is better? That we eat a perfect diet of natural foods and then crush a workout…for a week, a month, or maybe even a year, but then slide back to our old life? Or that we make small improvements that stay with us permanently? Imagine if instead of a hamburger, fries, and a soda, we chose to eat a salad full of things we truly enjoy (which for me consists of fruit, some candied pecans, grilled chicken, goat cheese, and a homemade dill dressing) and maybe a small french fry, followed by a good, solid workout if our body is saying “Go” or a massage or trip to the pool for a leisurely swim if our body is saying “Rest”.

The point is that small changes are the key. We will dive more into this concept in days ahead, but being consistent is far more important than large scale changes. So how do we make these changes?

Automation is key. Life is far too complex to be trying to control every step of every process. The issue, therefore, is to identify a major problem, find a routine that can be built into a habit, and then reinforce it until it is automatic. Then move on to the next issue. Charles Duhigg wrote an excellent book entitled The Power of Habit. Again, this is a topic that deserves not just its own entry by a series of them, and I will head that direction soon. But in the meantime, do yourself a favor and read this book cover to cover. I recommend it to my patients who are battling with addictions. Definitely time well spent.


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