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Which Is Stronger: Habit or Willpower?

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Most of us think we’d be healthier if only we had the mental strength to make the right choices. New research suggests, however, that in the effort to change, habits may be more important than willpower.

“When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control. But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits. Habits persist even when we’re tired and don’t have the energy to exert self-control,” said Wendy Wood, PhD, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, in a USC press release.

USC scientists conducted five experiments, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2013; 104 [6], 959-75; doi:10.1037/a0032626). The studies examined whether habits could improve or undermine goal achievement, particularly when people lacked willpower (as might occur under stress). Results showed that people tended to default to a habit, whether “good” or “bad,” when they lacked the mental resources to make a choice (e.g., “Do I work out or not?”).

“Habits don’t require much willpower and thought and deliberation,” said Woods. “So, the central question for behavior change efforts should be, how can you form healthy, productive habits?”

The takeaway for fitness and wellness professionals? According to Wood, “What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform, so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine.”

To learn more about the study, go to http://news.usc.edu/#!/article/51501/51501/.



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Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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