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For physical fitness, willpower is not enough

New Year’s Day is coming, and you know what that means — hordes of people clogging up the gym, trying to get strong/fast/slim or whatever. Most of these people will fail. I think I know one reason why.

People make the same mistake every year. They tell themselves, “this is the year that I’ll finally have enough willpower to get off my ass and get into the gym and lose weight.” Predictably, after about a month their willpower starts to evaporate, and by April they’re just as sedentary as ever.

These people repeatedly fail to make exercise a habit, but not because their willpower is substandard or flawed. Their problem is that normal human beings can’t rely on willpower alone to keep them fit. If you don’t get any intrinsic pleasure out of your workouts, you’ll inevitably make sure that working out is not a part of your life. So if someone tells me that they’re going to start exercising, my first question is always “what kinds of exercise are fun for you?” If they can’t tell me, I can confidently predict that they won’t be exercising for very long. Willpower isn’t enough.

My dog having fun

My dog having fun

I’m lucky — I’ll run trails in the mountains even if it’s bad for me, because it’s fun (and I have an annoying overuse injury to my left ankle to prove it.)  I’ll ride mountain bikes and road bikes up hills instead of seeing movies or going to clubs or playing video games, and it’s not because my willpower is any better than anyone else’s.  It’s because I love it. I’ll stay in good shape as long as I have access to hills and mountains, no willlpower required.

But running on the flats is not as fun.  I’ll do it, but I’m more dependent on willpower to get me out the door.  In three years of living in Chicago as an emergency medicine resident, I managed to keep up a decent workout schedule, but my fitness level declined over each year I was a resident. I’m convinced that the flat Chicago landscape (maybe more than my busy resident’s schedule) made it difficult to exercise. I just wasn’t having as much fun.

If I’d stayed in Chicago, I would have had to find something other than flatland running to keep me active, or I’d have slowly devolved into a blobby middle-aged midwesterner with an embarrassingly low VO2 max.

So here’s my unsolicited advice for this New Year’s Day. If your resolutions include “losing weight” or “getting strong” or “getting fast” or anything having to do with physical fitness, add one more resolution to your list — “find some exercise I’ll do just for the fun of it.”


  1. Peter wrote:

    I totally agree. But for me its running on a level dirt track. I can just keep my eyes open enough to not run into a tree or a slower runner and I’m in heaven. I always feel I could cruise like that all day long. But, alas, eventually I get hungry and I am forced back to reality.
    Great post. How true!

    Tuesday, December 29, 2009 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Kayvon Alizadeh wrote:

    Agreed but if you want to lose wt, dont exercise. Exercise does not equal wt loss. This is a common misconception in the public eye. If you want a VO2max of 80-100cc/kg/min, then exercise (or if it is fun for you-whatever blows your hair back). As many people do not share your luster with physical activity, if they simply cooked their own meals and actually looked at what they were putting in their mouths the epidemic of obesity would not exist. For example I wonder how many gastric bypass surgeries they perform in Hati (one of the poorest countries in the world) each year?

    Friday, January 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  3. Carey wrote:

    Don’t exercise?

    I agree that exercise alone will not take off the pounds, and that you have to pay attention to the diet.

    But surely you didn’t mean to say “don’t exercise.” Did you?

    Losing weight has always been about burning more calories than you consume, right? So for any level of caloric intake, there’s a certain level of caloric expenditure that will result in weight loss. Exercising (burning more calories) just increases the odds that your caloric intake won’t all go toward extra poundage.

    Maybe the weight-loss message ought to shift to dietary control, because most people have accepted the need for exercise but not the need to watch what they eat.

    Pessimistic me says: neither message has gotten through.

    Monday, January 4, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

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