US Navy Photo; public domain

It seems that exercise is ever-evolving.  If you attend a gym regularly, you probably notice that every couple of months, people are flocking to the latest and greatest exercise adventure—from Zumba to hot yoga to TRX training.  Each program makes impressive claims, promising to increase your strength, control, power, and balance.

There is one program of exercise that probably will never show up at your gym, and yet it has the power to transform your entire life, not just your physical prowess: self-control training.  Exercising your impulse control muscle (what many people think of as “willpower”) can literally transform the landscape of your brain and train your mind to be a better self-observer, to pause before acting impulsively, and to choose the more difficult path.

Imagine how those skills might benefit you in your financial life.  If you strengthen your impulse control, it would be so much easier to save part of your paycheck instead of spending it all, to be patient with long-term investments instead of reacting to bumps in the road, and to pay off debt instead of being lured in by the more immediate pleasures that your money can procure.

Just as a gym-based exercise program allows us to meet physical challenges with greater ease, a willpower workout allows us to meet physical, mental, emotional, economic, environmental, and societal challenges with greater ease (see the work of psychologist Roy Baumeister).

How do you do it?  Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, in her recent book The Willpower Instinct, reviews three categories of self-control training:

  1. Add new habits: Pick one thing to do every day just for the practice of building up a habit.  Dr. McGonigal suggests tasks such as finding one thing in your house that needs to be thrown away, calling a specific person, or focusing on your breath for five minutes.
  2. Avoid old habits: Pick one thing to not do every day simply for the practice of noticing your old habits and then choosing a more difficult path.  For example, avoid crossing your legs when you sit, avoid swearing, substitute the word “yes” for “yeah,” or use your nondominant hand for eating.
  3. Keep track of something: Choose an activity that you don’t ordinarily monitor and keep a formal record of it.  For example, track how much time you spend online, how much time you watch television, or how many times you go up and down the stairs at your house.

They may seem like trivial changes, but research shows that these practices are a powerful way to help the brain get stronger at self-control.  And just think: You don’t even have to buy spandex to join this exercise revolution!

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