For those watching their waistline, the holiday season can be a minefield of temptations. More treats at work, and more parties with family, friends and food – all this takes stronger willpower than usual to make healthy food choices. Fortunately, there are strategies we can employ to maximize willpower which could minimize our slip ups.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain is largely responsible for self control and willpower. The development of this area is affected by our choices and activities. For example, elevated stress hormones reduce the activity level in the prefrontal cortex making it more likely to give in to immediate gratification. Getting drunk, not surprisingly, can make the prefrontal cortex very sluggish (more eggnog anyone?). And so does sleep deprivation. Researchers are linking the increase in obesity rates, in part, to the fact that we are sleeping less. Staying up all night wrapping presents makes it harder to resist that second helping of everything the next day.
Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, suggests regular physical activity and yoga to strengthen your willpower – a good reason to stay active throughout the holiday season. Breath-focused meditation – even as little as 5 minutes per day – can also make a difference. And spending time in nature is very restorative to the prefrontal cortex. Over the holidays, try going for a hike with your family instead of watching a movie.
According to McGonigal, willpower can be exercised, just like your muscles. Picking a small step and doing it every day until its easy can give you more willpower over time. But kept in mind, in the short term, it’s important not to overdo it. Until you have developed your willpower “muscle” sufficiently, think of willpower as a finite resource. If you are using it up in one area of your life – like trying to quit smoking – you may not have enough left over to get through the whole day without that extra truffle.
All areas of the brain need fuel to function optimally. “If you starve yourself, you’ll have low glucose,” says Roy Baumeister, co-author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”. Low blood sugar means your prefrontal cortex doesn’t have the energy it needs to resist Christmas cookies. So eating regular healthy snacks – especially before a willpower-challenging event like a Christmas party – can help resist those temptations.
So try one or two of these strategies this holiday season. And see if you can come out the other side with a stronger willpower muscle. Happy holidays!