It is reported that due to the consumption of energy-dense food, sedentary lifestyle, lack of health care services and financial support, developing countries are facing high risk of obesity and the resultant consequences such as diabetes, and ischemic heart disease. In India, more than 135 million people are affected by obesity. Various studies have also shown that the prevalence of obesity is more among women than in men. Recent studies have also shown that globally, approximately 2.8 million deaths are reported as result of being overweight or obese (Rajeev Ahirwar & Prakash Ranjan, 2019).
The essential part of obesity treatment is increased physical activity/exercise. It is said that people with overweight must undertake at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity to prevent further weight gain. If, on the other hand, they wish to achieve significant weight loss, they must exercise 300 minutes or more a week. Though the regular aerobic exercise is the most efficient way to burn calories and shed excess weight, even moving around periodically in a day, helps in burning calories. About 10, 000 steps every day, is a nice goal to reduce weight gradually.
Along with it, a behaviour modification programme is also necessary. First, identify the current habits such as stresses, situations that are contributing to the weight gain, etc. Based on it, work out a plan of lifestyle changes required and importantly execute it. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA losing just 5-10 percent of body weight will bring significant health benefits.
Interestingly, most of the over-weighing people, heeding to this advice, make plans for undertaking regular exercise to burn their excess calories. They all start with a great determination, but many of them, give it off half the way. It’s not that they aren’t motivated. They do know that overweight is harmful for them. They do know that their overweight is their esteem-crushing in a society in which thin is in. And yet, they fail in accomplishing their goal. And now the question is: why so many failures?
One immediate answer we all come up with is: these people lack ‘willpower’—will power to stay on course. And hence the failure. This is the commonest cause that we all identify behind all our failures. Now, what is this willpower? Simply put, it is nothing but putting off what one wants right at the moment in order to achieve a long-term goal. It is referred to as a resolve or self-control and involves a number of cognitive and behavioural characteristics:
- Willpower involves putting off what one want in the short-term to get what he/she wants in the long-term
- Its sustainability calls for conscious effort and also a significant investment of emotional and cognitive resources.
- It is the ability to maintain control to stay on course by resisting urges and guarding from temptations.
It’s needless to say that to accomplish anything in life we need to exercise ‘self-control’. Think about some of your past achievements of which you are indeed proud of, you would realize what an amount of hard labour you were to put on in pursuing it, the grit with which you were to resist all temptations to relax in order to stay focused on the goal and ultimately achieve it. The research of psychologists, Walter Mischel et al (1989) had shown that kids who were able to delay gratification had better grades, better academic test scores, and higher educational attainment. Later research by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman (2005) found that self-discipline played a greater role in academic success than IQ. Other researchers like Moffitt TE, et al (2011) have also found that people with higher self-control have better relationship skills, suffer fewer mental health problems, and have overall better physical health.
We all have this important element for success, ‘self-control’, albeit some have more of it while some are endowed with less of it. It is also true that even those who have a lot of self-control sometimes run out of it. For instance, people who have succeeded in accomplishing goals by dint of self-control, suddenly find themselves running out of it. For, self-control, like any other muscle, also suffers from fatigue. In other words, self-control, like any other muscle, can also be built up and strengthened with time and effort.
Based on several studies, psychologists have found that ‘self-control’ muscle can be improved/strengthened by adopting a few strategies such as:
- Use willpower muscle to strengthen it:
Your self-control muscle is like any other muscle of your body. If it is not used, it won’t get much exercise, and when it doesn’t get much exercise, it gets weak over time. On the other hand, if you get regular workouts by putting it to regular use, your self-control muscle grows stronger and stronger enabling you to achieve your goals. Mark Muraven in his 2010 paper published in J Exp Soc Psychol stated that “by practising small acts of self-control, overall self-control capacity can be increased”.
- Pump it up:
Psychologists Mark Muraven et al (1999) say that by simply working on one’s self-control muscle regularly, one can strengthen one’s self-control significantly. This practice is no doubt, will be hard in the beginning, but if you hang on to it, it becomes much easier as the days roll on. And, as your muscle strengthens, it is sure to impact every aspect of your life for the better. Also remember, it gets exhausted by overuse. So, adopt right practice. Instead of completely spreading your will power on many goals at once, focus your will power muscle on one goal at a time to accomplish.
- Improve your self-awareness:
In the normal course most of our choices are made on ‘autopilot’ mode, without knowing what is really driving them or what effect they will have on us. So, the first step in attempting to change our behaviour is to create ‘self-awareness’—the ability to recognize what we are doing as we are doing it. This awareness, the idea of our thought process, underlying emotions, and reasons for such acting, helps us in making better choices. Lack of self-awareness results in distraction, and distracted people are more prone to yield to temptations. That weakens self-control.
- Use distractions:
When you are facing a temptation—whether it’s the desire to eat, sleep, spend, indulge in some other undesired behaviour—try looking for some type of distraction, such as the one used by the children in Mischel’s classic experiment where children closed their eyes or, turned their eyes away from the treat, to strengthen their will power to not to eat the treat.
- Do it for Your-self:
Research indicates that when people do exercise to lose weight for their own reasons are more successful at it than when they undertake it for pleasing others. Internal motivation is always stronger in keeping you focussed on the goal than the external motivation. So, own it up: “I am exercising to lose weight for my own sake, for keeping myself healthy, for presenting myself more smartly”. This awareness and its assertion are sure to keep one glued to his/her chosen path.
Neuroscientists say that brain changes based on what we do continuously i.e. if we practice a certain behaviour, we are strengthening the neural connections for that behaviour, and because of which, our brain makes itself more accessible for that behaviour and hence that behaviour is likely to occur. It means, if we practice worrying, one gets better at worrying, for the brain region associated with that activity will grow denser. Similarly, if we practice concentration, we will get better at it. So, we can also train our brain for better self-control. And meditation is one of the best ways to achieve it. Indeed, meditation has a wide range of skills that are associated with self-control: attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, self-awareness, etc.
Maintain blood glucose levels: Recent research findings reveal that self-control is said to rely, at least partly, on the amount of glucose in bloodstream. Multiple studies revealed that a person’s blood glucose turns significantly lower after undertaking self-control-depleting tasks such as thought suppression, controlling attention, coping with the thoughts of death etc. In such circumstances, it makes sense to try a snack or a drink made with sugar. However, the best way to maintain a constant supply of blood glucose over a long haul is to eat protein and complex carbohydrates.
- Be Enthusiastic:
Nothing is possible to accomplish without enthusiasm. For, enthusiasm is an essential element to keep one’s pursuit alive. None of the above can get operationalized unless one has unflagging enthusiasm to pursue the goal. Indeed, it is due to waning enthusiasm that most of the obese people are often found to give off their exercise half the way. That is what Lakshmana tells Sri Rama when he was lamenting at the absence of Sita in the hermitage:
“sokan vimuncarya dhá¹›tin bhajasva sotsahata castu vimargaá¹‡e.syaá¸¥.
/ utsahavanto hi nara na loke sidanti karmasvatiduá¹£kareá¹£u (3.63.19)
— O noble prince, give up grief. Take courage. Show enthusiasm to search and find Sita. Enthusiastic people will not get despondent in carrying out the most difficult tasks”.
So, it is evident from the foregoing that we can cultivate ‘self-control’, develop it and make it stronger (or, weaker) by regular workouts over time. Builders of self-control often say that it develops from trying and failing, trying and failing and in the process succeeding with small gains and staying focused on whatever being attempted with a little better each time. Therefore, what is needed is: ardent practice!
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