Weight Anxiety: Why Willpower Doesn’t Work

Obsessively counting calories, constantly asking, “do I look fat?” and spending hours in front of the mirror are things we usually associate with teenage girls. Between the ages of 12-18 females focus an incredible amount of energy on the way they look, and as a society we grant them that leeway. However, once we graduate college, get a job and join the real world, it’s expected that we throw those anxieties aside and get on with our lives. I don’t think it’s that easy.

Just looking at the sheer number of weight loss products, books, and diet programs it’s not only clear that we have a weight problem, but that we’re dying to get rid of it. Almost every weight-loss book is covered with a picture of a very thin woman, drawing a tape measure around her perfect waist, and we buy those books in droves. We may hide the fact that we want a perfect body from our friends and co-workers, assuring ourselves that we are “above that” or we’ve grown up since our vain teenage years, but have we really? I’m not sure I have. I have good days where I barely look in the mirror, eat well, go for a good run and feel healthy and happy about the way I look. But there are other days… Writing a health and fitness blog means scouring the internet for new stories or workouts, and that also means being bombarded with airbrushed photos of impossible looking women. Have you come across these? It’s hard not to draw comparisons and begin to criticize what’s in the mirror. This may be where many of our diets begin; we promise to wake up early to run for an hour, only eat vegetables and cut out carbs until we look like the girl in the impossible photo.

Does all this worry actually make us thinner?

The big question, I think, is do these moments of criticism and then promises of motivation actually lead to weight loss and improvements in our health? Probably not. There was a study published recently in Motivation and Emotion discussing the effects that attempted willpower have on our decision-making. When subjects were prompted with words like “fight temptation” “overcome” “exert willpower”, the subjects later on were more susceptible to making rash decisions and displaying poor judgment. This may be why diets are usually so unsuccessful. Forcing ourselves to be in a state of anxiety motivates us for a little while, and then we rebel against the rules we’ve set for ourselves and indulge. However, the study did find that when prompted with relaxing words, the subjects were able to make better, more well thought out decisions. It seems that when people feel more relaxed, they are better able to weight their options and make the best choice.

Focus on the positive

Instead of focusing on what you don’t like about your body or how much weight you’re trying to lose, try focusing on something positive. Pick a healthy choice like including more vegetables or going for an evening walk and then enjoy yourself while you do it. Think about how much that behavior makes you feel better, and how proud of yourself you are for accomplishing you small goal everyday. You will increase your self-esteem and reduce your anxiety, actually improving your odds of losing weight. So, don’t sweat it! You look beautiful.

My small goal this week is to run at least 4 times, and get to the gym to lift at least once. What’s your goal?

Have you every experienced weight anxiety? Did you feel it was a positive or negative influence in your life?


4 responses to this post.

  1. LOL! I didn’t know that because I’m an adult I was supposed to have ‘gotten over’ obsessing over how I look and trying to improve my body or lose a couple pounds?! In fact, I think it gets worse as time goes by.

    As an adult you read more, educate yourself more, meet more people. You have more experiences in life and all of those, I think, propel you towards whatever your goal is. I think it’s in different levels depending on where you are…..right now I’m as thin as I’m going to get without starting to push heavy weights. 15 years ago I would have been thrilled to be as thin as I am right now. But now it’s not good enough. Now thin is just the beginning, it’s strength and muscle that everyone is after!


  2. Hi Sara and Kevin! I definitely find that a more positive approach works for me as far as diet and exercise. Taking “baby steps” and giving myself small rewards along the way keeps me from spiraling into panic mode and anxiety!

    Also, congrats – I just awarded you the Liebster Blog award 🙂

    Stop by to check it out and pass it along!

    Have a great day…



  3. Posted by Debra on March 27, 2012 at 6:15 am

    Hi there. I found you from the Runners World site. I total and completely understand this post. I am a 35 year old woman who has listened to my mother and sisters say how fat and ugly they are for my whole life. My mother is the thinnest that she has ever been and still says that she is fat. I just got out of a 16.5 year marriage that consisted of food and alcohol with a man that enjoyed sitting and watching tv. I am not unattactive but about 60 lbs over weight and I feel myself wanting to change my thoughts about diet and exercise. I have always wanted to run but feel very self conscious and won’t run unless it is dark. I have tried classes at the gym but again very self conscious. I feel very embarrased that I was unable to control what has happened over the course of my life. I have been participating in Weight Watchers and feel good about that but every time I have a success I sabotage myself again with negitive thoughts. I have always been facinated with people who just exercise every day and really enjoy it. I never have enjoyed exercise and I have to force myself to do it. I have had these bad habits taught to me and I fear that I have passed it on to my 15 year old daughter. She does not like exercise and really controls her weight with her eating…she will just eat less and hates the scale.

    I have read a book called “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen. What he writes about how your thoughts effect the outcome of what you desire is very interesting. Changing how you have thought for 35 years is very very difficult and I feel that I am struggling but I keep working on it every day.

    Thanks for writing! D


    • Hi Debra,
      Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such an honest comment. I definitely think that our thoughts dictate how we respond to life and how we respond to ourselves. I’m a big believer in visualization. Before I go to bed at night, I imagine myself doing one thing that I’m afraid I won’t have the willpower to do (usually it’s getting up early to exercise, because I hate waking up early!). Every night that I visualize myself waking up early and running, I actually get it done. I think that believing you have to power to change yourself is half the battle! I’ll definitely check out the book by James Allen!


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