“I just don’t have the willpower.” Hands up who’s said that before? But it might not be a lack of dedication that’s making you miss your workouts.
Do you blame your lack of willpower when you miss your bedtime because you were scrolling TikTok? Or when you snooze your alarm and miss your morning workout? Or when you have a prosecco at a work party even though you were trying not to drink?
Willpower is a term that we often use when talking about neglecting our health and fitness goals. You might constantly hear friends blame their cancelled workouts or less nutritious meals on a ‘lack of willpower’, evidence as to why they simply shouldn’t bother in the first place.
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The emphasis fitness places on willpower is interesting – in no other area of our lives do we put less-than-perfect choices down to huge character flaws in the same way we do when it comes to eating and exercise.
And what’s more interesting is that most of us have tons of evidence of drawing on our willpower every single day; the same people who complain that eating a cake that’s put in front of them shows they are weak-willed are likely also the people who have impressive careers, patience with friends and well-controlled finances.
It’s a disparity I’ve heard nutritionist and coach Dr Emilia Thompson discuss before – how people (mainly women) work through challenging relationships and have the grit to break boundaries in their careers, yet beat themselves up for ‘lacking willpower’ when they miss one morning alarm.
“Willpower, in a nutshell, is the ability to resist short-term temptations so we can achieve long-term goals,” Dr Thompson tells Stylist.” Think of it like a conscious choice, where we respond to our long-term goals as opposed to reacting in the moment.”
Sure, willpower is necessary to create change (or even be a functioning person in society). Sometimes we have to choose to run when we want to sleep in order to be fit enough to cross the finish line of a race. Or we choose to cook vegetables alongside the pizza we ordered if we are trying to improve our gut health.
But the fitness world has massively overcomplicated the term, says Dr Thompson. “It’s easier to blame willpower than it is to delve into reasons that people might be struggling with their behaviour,” she says.
“On Instagram, in particular, we see coaches and influencers perpetuate the myth that you have to ‘want it enough’, and hold themselves up as people who exercise willpower because of their transformation or ability to stick within rigid rules.”
But restriction isn’t the same as willpower. Nor is exercising every morning a sign of strength when it’s your job and something you have spent years building a routine around, as these trainers have. Given the latest stats around the gender exercise gap, there’s clearly more going on that stops women from working out than simply lacking the desire. There’s childcare, the cost of gyms, rising mental health problems and simply lacking the confidence to know how.
Putting all of the blame on your inability to use your willpower does no good. Really, we need to reframe the reasons that we aren’t making goal-oriented decisions. Is it an odd occasion that doesn’t warrant beating yourself up about? Or is it because the goal itself is the problem, rather than you?
“It may be that the goals or habits you’ve set yourself are unrealistic and simply unattainable. Instead of meeting yourself where they are, you set unrealistic targets, like going to the gym five times a week from zero. Then when you can’t manage it for more than a few days or weeks, you blame ‘willpower’, because it’s easier than accepting that what you were aiming for was unrealistic,” says Thompson.
“If we believe willpower is definite, we are less likely to achieve our goals. But if we see it as something that can be reinforced and built, we are more likely to continue working towards them. The way we think about willpower is important, as is the emphasis that we put on it.”
Not every decision is about you being a lesser person. Sometimes, we can do things that don’t align with the end goal. Other times, we need to readjust our expectations about what that goal is or how we are going to get there. But don’t let a ‘lack of willpower’ put you off trying.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).