With every New Year comes new resolutions. Gyms are full and people are going crazy trying to get back into shape. As we all know, this will only last for 2-3 months and most people will abandon their resolutions before the leaves start to grow again. Do people lack motivation or time? Perhaps both! But what appears to be the biggest hindrance is not seeing the fruits of your labor pay off. Only once you actually see your body transforming do you get hooked.
You’re pretty sure you went all out on those machines – so why don’t you see results?
Is it because:
- You didn’t have a meal plan?
- You don’t like running on a treadmill?
- You were lacking time to go train?
It’s because in the first crucial month of your training, you were overestimating the calories you are actually burning. It’s because people will cheat on whatever they agreed on at the start, whether it would be a diet or a personalized training. People find it so hard to exercise again and to find time to train 3X a week with their busy schedule that they end up eating junk food and overeating.
So how does this happen? Why do we cheat? The explanation lies with the interaction between our self-regulation (a.k.a. self-control) and a concept called Ego Depletion. Let’s take a look at a scientific way to explain all of this.
Self-regulation refers to one’s ability to alter their behavior. This is crucial in many daily functions including;
- Making choices
- Taking responsibility
- Making a plan of action & executing it
It is also involved in less essential decisions such as getting out of bed early or choosing the salad over the fries as a side dish. Practicing self-control seems to result in desirable outcomes in task performance, work success, popularity, etc. We have all experienced situations where you can’t control yourself anymore – for example; when your boss blamed you his mistakes or when you went to buy that one shirt and ended up buying two new blazers and pair of shoes to go with them. We all know there is a limit to ones self-volition (a.k.a. will power), but is it a real concept or a myth?
It is a real concept referred to as Ego Depletion - meaning that self-control runs on a limited resource. The core idea is that the depletion of self-regulatory strength in a task will impair the performance of the immediate subsequent task. In practice, ego depletion is apparent when observing an individual attempting to solve an unsolvable puzzle after refraining from a certain activity/action/behavior (i.e. eating chocolate) compared to someone who was allowed to exhibit that same activity/action/behavior.
Real life implications
Ego depletion has many implications in different domains. We will mainly focus on dieting and training.
Ego Depletion is the Reason Most Diets Fail
One study that should definitely be mentioned is that of the effect of self-regulation on chronic dieters. Kathleen D. Vohs and her colleague Todd F. Heatherton studied the habits of female students of Dartmouth College that were considered chronic dieters. They witnessed that the proximity of snack foods influenced the temptation level and the cognitive energy devoted to the presence of the food hence depleting one’s volition. Dieters are challenged daily with temptations which require a lot of self-regulation. They are constantly in a state of inhibition. Research showed that adding temptation by having prohibited food near us burdens the mind even more to the point where we cannot refrain from snacking.
We could argue that the accessibility and availability of the food was a trigger and a reason why the participants in the study were snacking. To further examine this theory, researchers looked at the effect of chronic self-regulation on an unrelated food task like solving a puzzle. It was brought to light that the more you abstain from eating treats, the less mental persistence behavior you will show. Consequently, the hardship of resisting food related temptation depletes one’s self-regulatory abilities and affects self-regulation aptitude in other domains. Therefore, the snacking is not the result of triggered eating habits but really is the effect of ego depletion.
People also claim that snacking is a result of emotional comfort. A team of researchers refuted that idea by collecting and analyzing mood data collected before and after an ego depletion task. They asked dieters to watch an 11 minutes segment of a movie in which a young dying woman says goodbye to her loved ones. They separated the participants in two groups:
1) Stay neutral to the movie and inhibit their feelings, inside and out.
2) Act normally and react accordingly to their feelings
After the movie, they had to take a mood survey followed by a taste and rate ice cream test. They found that the group who had to supress their emotions ate significantly more ice cream than the ones that could express their feelings. This reinforced the hypothesis of ego depletion. Also, the mood survey revealed no difference in the participant’s affect whether it was positive affect, anxiety, hostility or dysphoria. There was no difference in between the control group and the experimental group. This concludes that the snacking wasn’t the outcome of emotional eating but is the result of lack of self-control.
Ultimately, most diets fail or are unsustainable long term due to lack of self-regulation. That constant state of inhibition is depleting your volition really quickly and will lead you to failure. Even if you are able to follow a strict diet for a month, most will eventually lack self-control and start eating more, snacking or eating forbidden goods. You can then say goodbye to your weight loss. It will result in constant ups and down.
The more you think about it, the more self-control you’ll need and use, the less you’ll have to resist the temptation.
Try changing your habits slowly and incorporate changes gradually to your normal diet. Don’t limit yourself to tiny portions right away. You’ll use too much self-control and you will end up snacking.
- Try to stop yourself when you are 75% full.
- Hide the snacks and other banned foods (If you can, don’t even keep them at home because even if they are hidden, you still know you have them close.)
- Make sure you always have a healthy snack like vegetables ready if the cravings are too strong. (By reacting fast to the cravings, you’ll have less time to obsess over it.)
Ego Depletion Will Define How Effective Your Training Will Be
Ego depletion disturbs more than just mental tasks like resisting snacking or solving puzzles. It can also affect physical performance. Multiple cross-domain studies tested the influence of emotional and cognitive regulation on a handgrip task where one must clasp for as long as possible. Muscle strength is undeniably required and put to the test in a hand squeezing task but overcoming fatigue and overriding the urge to give up relies on self-control and mental persistence. An overview of those studies demonstrated that ego depletion exists and that even physical activities are affected by it. In order to apply this, a team of Canadian researchers decided to test the influence of ego depletion on planning and adherence of exercise effort.
Researchers recruited young students that were exercising at most 2 sessions of 30 minutes or more of medium intensity exercises per week. They found that participants who went through a Stroop task, in which you need to name out loud the color of the written words where the color and the text don’t match, planned a significantly lower intensity level for their workout and that they were less likely to follow their plan in the long term.
What’s even more interesting is that even trained athletes who are used to pushing themselves are affected by ego depletion. Derrek Dorris and his team were interested to see if tasks like counting back from 1000 in 7’s while balancing a spirit level would affect the persistence in competitive rowers at doing press-ups. Effects of ego depletion were brought to light and they found that rowers completed fewer press-ups after a self-regulatory task. The same outcomes were found when they asked rugby and hockey players to do sit ups after the same self-regulatory task.
Ultimately, you think you are pushing yourself at a 100% every time but you are not. In strength training you might want to take lighter weights or you might not be pulling on those elastic bands hard enough. In metabolic classes, you might not be giving your max intensity or completing as many repetitions as you can. That’s why motivational speakers talk about giving your 110%. Now you know that since your mind power is depleted, your perception of giving your all is lowered and that your performance will drop if you don’t adapt. You have to go that extra mile and you have to push yourself ever harder. Only then can you really be sure that your training is effective and that your muscles won’t have another option than to strengthen themselves and that your body must use that energy stored as fat.
So What Happens When Training Starts Going Out With Dieting?
You end up cheating!
We know that ego depletion has a cross-domain influence. Also, it is well known that ego depletion plays a big role in the success of your diet and training independently. Nevertheless, when you combine the two, the results of the exertion of the self’s volition are far superior to what is expected. If not controlled, it will lead to the failure of every fat loss program you will ever try!
The self-control required to follow your daily diet drains your limited resource of volition and hinders your workout performance. The opposite is also true. Training is volition-taxing and makes it harder to resist temptation and indulge in treats. The effects of ego depletion go beyond that. Exhaustion of self-control disturbs our emotion of guilt. As unwanted and unpleasant the feeling of guilt is, it is a powerful driver. In a situation of diet, we are often affected by guilt after we give into temptation. One would then try even harder to resist. However, ego depletion makes you feel less guilty by taking the energy required for you to reflect on your behavior. Researchers also found that ego depleted individuals are more susceptible to cheat because of a lowered introspection ability.
In addition to the effects we just talked about, the combination of dieting and exercising triggers an immediate self-gratification system. Since dieting and training does not show immediate results, it causes and intertemporal conflict in our minds. The struggle between indulging ourselves now or waiting to achieve our fat loss goal creates the need to justify instant gratification by decrementing our ability to wait for a bigger reward. This is why people who tend to easily feel guilt end up snacking a lot. Studies found that the more effort spent doing a self-regulatory task, the more the individual indulges in vice and sacrifices their long term goal. Ultimately, the harder you train, the more susceptible you will give yourself a food reward and the better your justification for eating prohibited food will be. So even if you burn calories by working out, you end up eating them back right after and not losing any weight.
So Are We Doomed To Fail?
Don’t worry - there are also studies that focus on how we can positively influence ego depletion. We discussed how physical or mental effort effects the self-gratification system followed by ego depletion. However, the effort itself and the perception of the spend effort is different.
A team of researcher studied the influence of perception of physical exercise on subsequent snacking. There were 2 groups of participants - those taking part in physical activity that they would refer to as fun (i.e. a scenic walk) compared to those who underwent a 30 min session of exercise. They then after documented their food consumption. An interesting finding is that both groups consumed the same amount of calories. Nonetheless, the group that took part of the exercise session ate significantly more calories in dessert and drink category than the group that had fun walking. Additionally, the group in the exercise category reported more fatigue and were in a less positive mood than the other group. This is evidence that having a fun and positive perception of exercise reduces the risk of consuming prohibited food afterwards, and in turn reduces the perception of exercise as labour and positive increases mood. Therefore, try to view your workout as fun and not as a chore.
Similarly, perception of fatigue impacts self-regulation. Researchers found a concept called illusory fatigue based on the findings that people tend to perform worse when they think they are more fatigued than their true state. The opposite is also true. Participants that received positive feedback of a low state of ego depletion performed better on their second task. They were told it would be an easy task and that it wouldn’t be as depleting as other tasks. Their performances were better than the ones who didn’t have positive feedback. Basically, if you think you are tired or that it will be hard, it will actually be harder and you’ll feel more tired. Hence, by keeping a positive attitude and stepping up to the challenge telling yourself that you’ll be able to complete the task with ease counteracts the effect of ego depletion.
Positive attitude impacts motivation. Furthermore, motivation compensates for the lack of resources to self-regulate. Motivation pushes you to use more energy and depletes you even more by evading your need to conserve energy. Motivation in a training and dieting situation is crucial. You need to really want to achieve your goals. If you don’t, you won’t be able to give that extra push.
TIP: to help you stay motivated - have a friend accompany you through your workout to give you that extra push since external motivation also works. Knowing this, you should also try to motivate people around you whom are also training and giving their all.
In the last decade, researchers started to take interest in the replenishment of the self’s volition. Positive mood is one factor that regulates exertion of our mental resource. People are less depleted after watching a comedy than a drama. Same effects are reported when individuals are given a break in between self-regulatory tasks. You might not see any difference when you take a minute or a three minute break. However, it was determined that a ten minute break is a sufficient period of time for energy to replenish.
Furthermore, relaxation can be integrated to this break for a greater replenishment. A study was conducted which looked at participants who were asked to relax for three minutes in between tasks comparedto a group that was not given any special instructions related to relaxation. The group that received directions to relax performed significantly better than the control group during the subsequent task. Thus, relaxation can be used to refill our energy and counter depletion. You might not want to take breaks in between sets when you do High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). However, it would be a great idea to use meditation after your workout before going home to replenish your mental strength. No need to do a deep session of meditation. Listening to soothing music is enough. Take time to relax and prepare yourself to face your next challenge. It will most likely involve food and resisting the urge to reward yourself for carrying out your daily training.
A lot of our daily tasks require self-regulation. Ego depletion affects us more than we know. It’s what makes it so hard to resist temptation to snack. It’s what makes it so hard to keep pushing harder during our workout. It’s why we want to reward ourselves after training. Ego depletion is unavoidable. However, it can be countered by positive mood, motivation, and relaxation. Perception is also a big factor.
By knowing what you are putting your brain through and by being aware of the different factors and influences of ego depletion, your perception of dieting and training should change. It gives you a different vision and understanding of the psychology behind self-control. Now you need to implement this knowledge in your routine.
- Find a fun physical activity you want to practice three times a week.
- Workout with friends and have a positive mood.
- Incorporate relaxation session to your routine.
- Always go train with the idea that you will crush this challenge like a warrior.
- Need to change your mind as much as your body.
Someone once said that there are no elevators to success - we all needed to take the stairs. So the question is: how fast do you want to run up those stairs?
Make sure that this is not just another year where you’ll throw away your resolution in the blink of an eye. Good health shouldn’t be something we just wish for at the beginning of the year or at birthdays. Stop wishing and waiting for it to happen. Make it happen.
Come train with us at Revline Fitness. We can help you counter ego depletion.
Author : Thalie Forest, M.Sc. B.Sc, Physiotherapist at Revline Fitness
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