Self-control is something we all admire and strive for. But when it comes to practice, mustering up willpower isn't so easy. People try various strategies to strengthen their self-control—from meditation to making the most of the morning—but it turns out that there may be a notable correlation between self-control and another healthy habit. A recent study published in Behavior Modification and highlighted in The New York Times finds that exercise might increase your self-control. While you're strengthening your muscles, you're also strengthening your willpower, making it more likely to avoid impulsive choices.
Exercise is already known to have positive psychological effects, including improved mood and expanding people's sense of what they are capable of doing. The researchers used delay discounting, which The Times describes as "a measure that psychologists use to assess someone's ability to put off pleasures now for greater enjoyments in the future," to determine whether an increase in physical activity influenced participants' levels of self-control. The study was limited, with only four participants, but three of the four developed significantly greater self-control after committing to an increased amount of exercise. The results were proportional: The more someone exercised, the greater the improvement in their self-control.
Michael Sofis, a doctoral candidate in applied behavioral science at the University of Kansas who led the study, says that the upshot of these results would seem to be that exercise could be a simple way to help people strengthen their self-restraint. Exercise could also improve self-control due to the feelings of pride we're rewarded with after succeeding in completing a workout, making it more likely we'll make healthy decisions later on. As the scope of the study was quite small, more research is needed to come up with stronger conclusions, but for now, Sofis says that these results suggest that people "can change and improve their self-control with regular physical activity."