Why Willpower Doesn’t Work…and What Does

diploma2Picking up my diploma for my PhD in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition was a great moment because this achievement required over 10 years of college education along with a lot of self-discipline and willpower. And it got me thinking about something I want to tell you…one thing we know is that when it comes to creating healthier habits, simply relying on willpower is not effective.

The reason for this is pretty clear if you think about how we live. We’ve got so many obligations in life that we’re constantly having to tend to; our emotional bank for willing ourselves to do stuff is pretty tapped out. And this is even more extreme for firefighters; you’re regularly sacrificing sleep, meals, and physical and emotional strain for the benefit of others. Especially at the end of that 24 or 48 hour shift, your will to go out of your way to exercise and eat healthy is likely drained.

The key to overcoming this issue is not having to go out of your way. Rather, implement strategies or systems so that healthy habits are a part of your life that you don’t have to will yourself to do. Here are a few examples from my own life. Contrary to popular belief, I do not love to exercise; I mostly do it because I know how good it is for me. So, every term at Oregon State University I request to teach a group exercise class in addition to my Exercise Science courses. That way it’s a part of my schedule, I don’t have a choice to skip it, and I’m motivated to be there because I’m getting paid. I also make sure that I teach a form of exercise that I like (and don’t hate), which is another important strategy. There’s more about that topic in this blog post.

A second strategy of mine is I learned to cook well. That way, I can easily make healthy food taste delicious, so I don’t have to try and use willpower each and every meal in order to eat healthy.

My husband signs himself up for a soccer league year round. Since he likes to play soccer, and he’s paying to play, he knows he’ll be motivated to go, rather than having to force himself to get in that workout.

Maybe you need to get realistic about your strategies. If you’re constantly skipping your workout or eating crap, maybe you need to reconsider your system. Are you always having to rely on willpower, or are healthy habits automatic and easy? It just takes a little thought and strategizing.

If you already do have healthy habits, think about what strategies you have in place and share them. You could really help someone else!

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By | 2018-06-01T08:11:41+00:00 April 17th, 2013|Uncategorized|5 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Karlie Moore has a PhD in Exercise Science and Nutrition and specializes in firefighter health. She has conducted fitness testing on hundreds of firefighters and has created the most comprehensive online wellness program for fire departments called the FitCulture program. Dr. Moore is also married to a firefighter and so understands their lifestyle and the health challenges associated with it.


  1. Kirk Rains April 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Good article. It does give one something to think about & reassess their fitness plan. Thanks.

  2. Mark Wolfington November 7, 2014 at 1:58 am

    It is nice to have a gym at the fire station and have firefighters on shift who regularly workout. For me, a group workout is more enjoyable and motivating than an individual workout. I find it much easier to talk myself out of exercising by justifying how sore I am, how much I have to do or something as simple as not being in the mood. Another motivation for is for me to have a goal in mind. Our department requires us to pass a physical agility and strength test every six months. We have eight minutes to complete the test and at 54 years of age, it takes me close to 61/2 minutes.

    • Karlie December 14, 2014 at 1:58 am

      That is pretty impressive that your department requires a physical agility test every 6 months. So many departments do a simple physical when hired and then absolutely nothing else for the rest of your career. Kudos to you guys!

  3. Don Fair November 7, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    Thank you Dr. Moore,

    For another excellent suggestion. An occasional review of one’s personal strategies is one for which I too, need to keep in mind.

    With regard to sharing some of the “healthy habits” of mine; here are two, which I find to be highly effective and practice all the time: Eat more frequently & make smoothies.

    I eat more frequently than most people. I typically eat 5 or 6 times a day consuming smaller meals of course, consisting mostly of veggies & fruits. I also snack occasionally in-between. …Now that I am writing this out, it appears that I am a glutton – and I’m really not ! Think of it as “grazing” all day on “good for you” foods.

    Most of my foods are raw veggies or slightly cooked. I also avoid sugar in all forms, which requires reading a lot of food labels and I believe it is poison to the system. That’s where relying on natural foods & whole foods comes in handy. I try to create a balance to include fiber, carbs, protein, low calories, a little red meat, Fish ( & a small variety as well ), a few nuts ,a little dairy and good old fashion H2O. Now, the trick is to eat in moderation, not all of this at once or even all of the above in a single day. Balance is absolute key. I typically run a 20 hour day ( but not every day ) and this helps me to maintain energy, blood sugar levels and be able to go wherever, whenever and do whatever on a split second notice, while maintaining the strength and endurance necessary to do what needs to be done. Although sleep may be important, in my humble opinion, restful state of mind is of a crucial importance to maintain clarity of thinking and good decision making.

    I like a huge variety of veggies and to ensure I get most of them I blend them up by making a smoothie. The secret recipe for getting all those “good for you” veggies ingested ? It must taste good ! So I add the fruits I enjoy like apples, oranges & pineapple. I toss in a couple of berries as well, like strawberries & blueberries ( you can’t beat the extra antioxidants ) and don’t forget a bit of protein powder for a real balance. I make some of the ugliest smoothies you have ever seen. However, please keep in mind that if they don’t taste good, it’s not going down. Therefore, it will not do you any good. So make your taste-buds say YES ! Then pace yourself.

    So as a helpful suggestion to some; More veggies, more fruits, more often = More strength, more energy, more stamina. A smoothie or two a day with a variety of veggies & fruits will provide a nutritious supply to your cells, absolutely vital to one’s overall good health. It could also help to maintain glucose levels, weight gain or controlling one’s weight, bring blood pressure to a healthy range, stabilize moods, decrease headaches for some and even start to relieve stress, ( believe it or not ) just to name a few of the benefits.

    Thanks for the invite to share an opportunity of what works for me.

    Stay Safe !


    • Karlie December 14, 2014 at 1:59 am

      Thanks for sharing Don!

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