How to Exercise Your Willpower by Working Out


January 16, 2013   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

There’s an intimate connection between willpower and exercise.

I notice it most at the gym given the intensity of working out.

Willpower is what keeps me going five days per week, first thing in the morning despite bad weather, fatigue or lack of motivation.

Once at the gym, it helps me to do what I came to do, and without cheating.

However, my willpower isn’t always this strong.

By assessing my level of willpower while exercising, I learned how to strengthen it so that it spills over into other areas of my life.

Let’s talk about how you can do this too.

We use willpower all the time, although it usually goes unnoticed.

Let’s focus in on how it relates to exercise, since I find that that’s where we use it or need it most. Exercise can make us feel really good, more relaxed and grounded, give us strength, energy, increased motivation, you name it.

At the same time, exercise can also push us to extremes such as feeling discomfort and even pain.

While I’m not suggesting that you intentionally hurt yourself, these already occurring difficult moments can help you appraise your level of willpower.

It seems there’s truth to the old cliché “no pain, no gain.”

The feeling or expectation of pain or discomfort keeps us from crossing a certain, often invisible threshold for fear that we will feel worse. In exercise, it shows up in many ways such as through:

  • Fatigue, weakness or exhaustion
  • Feeling out of breath
  • Muscle tension or soreness
  • Getting hot or feeling overheated, etc.

Moreover, pain or discomfort may also manifest mentally or emotionally, such as in cloudy thinking or mental fatigue, worry or anxiety, stress, lack of confidence or unworthiness, feeling inadequate, etc. At such times, negative self-talk takes over.

While this type of self-talk may be the cause of decreased willpower, it can also be its effect, or even both, its cause and effect. It is this subtle internal dialog which we have to pay attention to. When it arises, we can ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What am I telling myself right now?
  • How does what I’m telling myself affect me?
  • Does that serve me? If not, then…
  • What if it weren’t true?
  • What can be true instead?

This isn’t always easy.

It can be hard to ask yourself these questions when you have a heavy weight in your hands or when you’re dripping with sweat.

Whether or not we notice our self-talk, negative thoughts do indeed lurk in our minds in moments like these.

However, they are often below the level of conscious awareness.

They are like the larger but hidden part of an iceberg below the surface. It slowly rips apart our best intentions, sinking our willpower into the abyss. In exercise or working out, these thoughts keep us from pushing ourselves, cause us to give up early or dissuade us from exercising altogether (see my post about putting off procrastination – for more on the latter).

As you know, the result is typically disappointment, further reinforcing this cycle, making the next workout just as hard, if not harder. So, it is obviously important to start becoming aware of your self-talk while you’re working out. But how?

How to Become Aware of Your Self-Talk

You can start by asking yourself the questions above before your workout, between sets or exercises, or right after finishing.

Also pay attention to any feelings that come up as they are indicative of overall thought patterns. This is especially helpful if you have difficulty tuning into your self-talk initially.

Once you have a good idea of what you’re telling yourself, you can then begin to really challenge it. Negative self-talk can be substituted with more productive thoughts.

For instance, you can affirm what you want instead at any of these times, ingraining it into your mind again and again.

As you notice your self-talk more, you will get to know yourself better. You will understand how your internal dialog is affecting your life, much less your workout or exercise routine.

This puts you in a better position to challenge the thoughts that compromise your intentions. This will help you build more willpower, will keep you more positive, and will perpetuate a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious cycle.

Written on 1/16/2013 by Jack Grabon, LCSW, CPC. Jack helps those who feel like they have something important to do in this life but just aren’t doing it.  As an experienced psychotherapist, life coach and metaphysical/spiritual teacher, he helps his clients “live on purpose” so that life can be more joyful, fulfilling and meaningful.  Contact him for a free consultation. Photo Credit:

Getting Started with Forex

Other Dating Guide

Individual Reviews