Exercise May Boost Self-Control

Need help curbing your sweet tooth or saving for a dream vacation? Try going for a run. According to preliminary research published in Behavior Modification, regular exercise may help people develop better self-control. The New York Times reported on the small study which consisted of two trials. The first trial included four sedentary, overweight men and women; the second trial included twelve women of varying ages, body weights, and fitness levels. For both trials, participants began by taking a test that engaged them in a mental task called “delay discounting” to evaluate their self-control and impulsivity. In the test, participants were asked to consider choices on a questionnaire between smaller/sooner or larger/later rewards. Then, participants began a two-month exercise program that consisted of three 45-minute sessions of walking or jogging each week. Researchers tracked the participants’ physical progress, and asked them to fill out the delay-discounting questionnaire again at the end of every week and one month after the exercise program ended. Based on their answers, the researchers determined that:

  • Participants who completed the exercise program displayed better delay discounting (more self-control and less impulsivity) than they did prior to the exercise program.
  • Attending more workout sessions or increasing the intensity of their workouts was correlated with greater improvement in delay discounting in women in the second trial.
  • Improvements in delay discounting were still evident one month after the exercise program ended.

These early findings suggest regular exercise may help people who struggle with conditions related to high impulsivity, such as obesity, gambling, and substance abuse issues. However, while the delay-discounting questionnaire is accepted as a valid measure of self-control, the impact of exercise on decision-making in the real world needs to be demonstrated. While we await larger clinical trials to determine whether exercise could help us resist that double-chocolate chip cookie from our favorite bakery, it’s important to remember research has found exercise provides a myriad of other benefits, such as improved immune function, weight management, and cognitive function. And, as one of the researchers pointed out, exercise in itself is an example of delayed gratification: it’s not always pleasurable, but people do it for the sense of accomplishment they feel afterward and to achieve long-term health goals.

Source: New York Times

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