Self-Control May Improve with Practice

practice_selfcontrol It may be possible to strengthen and improve your self-control – and lose more weight – according to a new study by researchers at The Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center.  The research was the first to examine whether practicing acts of self-control during weight loss is linked to an increase in self-control and better weight loss outcomes. They conducted two studies; the first involved 40 participants enrolled in a six-month behavioral weight loss intervention. The intervention included weekly sessions led by dietitians, behavioral psychologists, and/or exercise physiologists and featured private weigh-ins. All participants were given a reduced calorie, low-fat diet, physical activity instructions and guidance in behavior change strategies. At the conclusion, the participants’ global self-control was tested with a handgrip task, a commonly used test measuring how long participants can hold onto and squeeze a handgrip. The idea is to see how long participants will hold on to the handgrip, despite cramping, pain and discomfort.  They have to override the desire to end the uncomfortable task in order to reach their goal.

The second study analyzed whether changes in self-control were connected with treatment adherence and weight loss outcomes. A similar six-month program was run, involving 23 participants. This time the participants completed the same objective measure of self-control (the handgrip test) both before the treatment program and at the conclusion.

The findings showed that participants in both studies who achieved a 10% weight loss had greater self-control compared to those who did not achieve such a weight loss. While this is not surprising in itself, the researchers further found that participants who showed increases in self-control from the start to conclusion of the trial achieved a significantly higher weight loss, ate a healthier diet, engaged in more minutes of physical activity, and attended more group meetings. The researchers concluded that self-control may be malleable and the practice of inhibiting impulses may help people lose weight, eat healthier and increase their physical activity. Future weight loss treatments may consider targeting self-control/willpower as a way to enhance outcomes. The study was published online by the journal Obesity Research and Clinical Practice.

We spoke with  Dr. Vafa Shayani, expert weight loss surgeon of The Bariatric Institute of Greater Chicago about the findings. He explained that “Obesity is a multifactorial condition that among other things, is highly influenced by the strong relationship between the individual, food, and the surrounding environment.  Like all relationships, an appropriate level of self-control will likely lead to a healthier outcome.  It is therefore not surprising that practicing self-control leads to improvement in behaviors that ultimately result in a healthier life-style and more successful weight-loss.”

Another recent experiment, presented at The Obesity Society’s annual meeting, also suggested that self-control/will power may be modifiable. In the experiment, some kids were given lego blocks to make a flower design, while others were given gummy bear candies to make the same flower design. After the activity, all the kids were offered a different type of candy to eat. According to the researchers, the kids that had been resisting eating candy because they were making flower out of it, ate notably less candy when it was presented after, as compared to those that were not practicing impulse control because they were making a flower out of legos. Combined with the findings from Miriam Hospital’s studies, this research may add to our understanding of how impulse control may be modified to help people lose weight.

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