Browsing the archives for the fatigue tag.
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Tired? Try Getting Some Exercise


When we’re feeling tired, run down, fatigued, or drained, exercise often seems unappealing. Feeling tired seems like a valid reason to avoid exercise. After all, if it’s an effort just to drag yourself from the car inside to the couch, there’s surely not enough extra energy to take a brisk walk, go swimming, or hit the gym–right?

But you probably picked up from the way I asked that this isn’t right, that how much energy we feel at a given moment isn’t really a reliable indicator of how much energy we could have in other circumstances. Certainly the exhaustion you feel after running a marathon means your body is tapped out, but at the end of a long day or in the middle of a lazy morning, feeling tired very often is only an indicator that our bodies haven’t received a signal that much energy is needed for the moment. Exercise can send just that kind of signal.

According to Tom Rath and Jim Harter in their book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, “A comprehensive analysis of more than 70 trials found that exercising is much more effective at eliminating fatigue than prescription drugs used for this purpose” (emphasis theirs). Exercise cranks up metabolism, helping to consume fat, build muscle, and create short-term and long-term energy.

In my own experience, this ability of exercise to make me feel more energized when tired came as a surprise. As I began to gain competency in Taekwondo over the last few years and was able to participated in advanced classes, I began going four to six hours a week. In order to keep that schedule up, many of the evenings I planned to go to Taekwondo turned out to be evenings when I felt dead tired. I tried going anyway, and to my surprise, my exhaustion almost always lifted by about ten minutes into the first class of the evening, and unless I was doing a very strenuous workout, I kept feeling energetic even after class.

Photo by Jean-Christophe Dichant

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The Debate Over Whether Willpower Tires Our Brains

The human mind

Kelly McGonigal mentioned recently on her Science of Willpower blog and her Twitter feed this interesting study about consumption of glucose in the brain. In case I started losing you at “consumption of glucose,” let me promise you that there is a great tussel forming up here! Here’s how it goes, although I’m oversimplifying it in order to be able to summarize the whole thing.

Some reputable researchers, including highly-regarded willpower researcher Dr. Roy Baumeister: Willpower is like a muscle. You use up energy when you use willpower, so you tend to get tired out and have less willpower for later. A little bit of sugar can help sometimes help keep willpower perky, though.

The New York Times blog: Willpower is like a muscle, say famous scientists. A little bit of sugar will give you a willpower boost, but don’t tire out your willpower.

Me: Hey, the New York Times and some reputable scientists are saying that willpower uses up energy in the brain and can get used up.

Me, later: Having done a lot more research and thinking, I’m not so sure about the “like a muscle” argument. An alternative hypothesis: maybe people just get annoyed at being asked to do things and get fed up. (Dr. McGonigal added via Twitter, “What gets exhausted is not the physical willpower energy but what I call ‘willingness.'”)

Dr. Robert Kurzban, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania (not responding to my post, but to the original studies): Actually, it doesn’t look as though the brain really does use much extra glucose when we’re exerting a lot of self-control.  “That is, if one were to use this aggressive estimate … the brains of subjects categorized as ‘depleted’ in this literature, have, relative to controls, used an additional amount of glucose equal to about 10% of a single Tic-Tac.” (Less than 1/5 of one calorie.)

There’s more to the discussion. For instance, more stressful mental situations can increase heart rate, which can lead to the rest of the body consuming more glucose. And I know that if I spend a long time working hard at mental tasks, I feel worn out afterward in the same way I do after exercise–although all that might well be from that heart rate effect, or some other effect. Based on Kurzban’s information, it’s very unlikely that I get tired out because my brain is using a lot of extra glucose.

Even if we don’t count the useful lesson that science is a series of attempts to explain things people have observed and that those attempts aren’t always right, this whole debate can be useful to us. For instance, we might observe that even if the glucose argument doesn’t hold, there are still ways in which self-control can be “used up.” For instance, in order to exert self-control that goes against our habits, we have to have attention and effort to spare, and those are limited resources. We also probably need some kind of willingness to tackle the challenge, and in some cases that might be something that we can’t use over and over without consequences.

However, there are other factors that make it easier to exert self-control again after exerting it once. One is a sense of accomplishment or control, a belief in the self. Another is encouragement from others, if we happen to get it. Another is that exerting self-control helps build a habit of self-control, although admittedly that habit is likely to pay off more in the long-term than the short. Another is that by exerting self-control in one area, we prove to ourselves that self-control is possible. Yet another is that having self-control often leaves us in better physical and mental condition than not having self-control, in that the kinds of things we tend to do when we don’t have self-control (like eating junk food, being inactive, and bottling up emotions) tend to wear us out or reduce our mental clarity, ability to focus, or physical strength for a while.

My conclusion from all this is that we don’t need to worry too much about using up our willpower: it makes more sense to be concerned about learning as many willpower-related skills as possible, practicing those skills, and focusing our attention and effort where it will do the most good.

Graphic by labguest


Getting Back on the Scale After the Holidays

Strategies and goals

Just before Thanksgiving, I posted How Not to Blow a Diet Over the Holidays, which contained the best information I had to offer about holding to a difficult course of fitness and weight loss during a time of year crammed with distractions, temptations, and surprises. Toward the end of the post I said, “Today I weigh 182 pounds. I’ll update this post in early January to let you know how it came out for me: I expect to have lost at least a few pounds.” Was my prediction sound? And just how useful did I find my own recommendations?

What worked
Well, my rash declaration definitely helped me focus my attention and reminded me to use the best knowledge I have. (After all, just knowing something isn’t the same thing as making active use of the knowledge), and the self-motivation skills I’ve been researching and writing about seem to have done the trick: my scale this morning tells me I weigh 177, five pounds less than I did a few days before Thanksgiving. I’ve lost roughly a pound a week over that time, most of it in the beginning of December, and am very close to my goal fitness level. (Exactly how close, I can’t be sure, as I’m not aiming for a number on the scale, but instead for a level of visible fitness.)

Did my pre-Thanksgiving strategies help me? Absolutely. I made a point of bringing food I could eat to celebrations and meals, planned what to eat ahead of time (including limits), took special care to track what I was eating, and talked freely about what I was doing to get support and to increase the potential rewards of sticking with it.

Unexpected complications
So did my own pre-holiday advice eliminate all trouble for me? Definitely not. The two problems I wasn’t expecting seem obvious in hindsight, but when I was making my plans, all I was worried about was the food that would be available to me.

The first of the surprise problems was time for exercise. I generally try to exercise as close as possible to every day. Over the holidays, there were a number of days when I would be with friends or family in all of my available time, and the idea of getting everyone up after Christmas dinner to go for a family run somehow didn’t seem very appropriate to me. Also, my habit of taking 3-5 Taekwondo classes a week was interrupted by holiday closures of the dojang (Taekwondo gym). So I squeezed in exercise when and where I could, more than once getting on the elliptical trainer or doing home Taekwondo practice well after 10:00 at night. In future, I’d want to plan better for these scheduling challenges, probably getting in some morning exercise instead of following my usual evening schedule–but I will also know to expect that I’ll get less exercise over the holidays, and to a limited extent, that’s OK with me.

The other problem I faced was a one-two punch: I would arrive home tired (though cheerful) after having eaten at irregular hours and spent the day with family or friends. I don’t know about you, but for me the combination of being tired and being off my normal eating schedule is a very bad one: it tends to make me feel hungry and inattentive, which means I’ll often just take whatever I think of first and eat it–hardly a recipe for weight loss success. A day like this broke my winning streak of keeping under 1700 calories a day and logging everything I ate, which had gotten up to 42 interrupted days. I’m now in the early days of a new winning streak, and have high hopes that it will carry me across my personal finish line as I rack up the days.

One good holiday season may be the most I’ll ever need
As I write this and do my best to extract knowledge for future (an example of keeping a feedback loop), I’m realizing that if all goes well, it’s very, very likely that when the 2010 holidays come around, I’ll have been on maintenance for quite a while, and while I’ll need to continue to be careful, I won’t need to be nearly as careful as I am now. In other words, losing weight over this past holiday season together with continued effort may mean I’ll never have to be quite so careful over the holidays again. Even if I had done no better than maintain my weight during that time, the same result would probably apply. For many people who are getting in shape, one really successful holiday season may be the make-or-break period for the entire process.

How did things go for you over the holidays? Any special difficulties or unusual accomplishments?

Regardless of how the holidays came out for you in terms of your health, we’re now at a time of year that is probably better suited to renewing commitment and redoubling efforts than any other, and we can use it to launch ourselves forward. Here’s to a powerfully motivated New Year.

Photo by oh_candy

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Does Willpower Really Get Used Up?

States of mind


Back in April I talked about this post on the New York Times blog, which seems to tell us that if we exert self-control in one area, it can cause us to have less self-control in other areas. Since then, I’ve come across a lot of information–studies, people’s stories of their experiences, my own experiences, books, and so on–that have helped me understand willpower a bit better. With this more informed perspective, I’d like to come back to the subject of self-control fatigue and ask: does willpower really get used up?

One goal at a time: focus, not fatigue
First, there’s one area where it’s become clear that not fatigue, but focus is the key. In the April post, I said “If we try to push in too many directions at once, we’ll rapidly become fatigued and usually lose our grip on all of the pieces. This is why, generally speaking, self-motivation works best when we work on one and only one kind of goal at a time.” Much information I’ve come across since writing that reinforces my conviction that as a rule, we have much better chances with new goals if we take on only one of them at a time–but because of focus instead of fatigue: if we try to take on two or more new goals at once, our attention is divided between them. This means less concentration on habits for each goal, less thinking about each goal, less recognizing of opportunities, less clarity, less mindfulness, and other kinds of limitations on how well we can really devote ourselves to our new goal. Since accomplishing a major goal usually means changing habits, and since habits are stubborn by definition, we usually need all the focus we can get when we take a new goal on.

Physiological energy and fatigue
The other aspect of self-control fatigue I talked about was physical energy: mentally exerting ourselves toward a goal takes a surprising amount of our available energy (and available blood sugar), which is what the Times blog post was focusing on regarding the study in question. Replenishing this energy with a little sugar fix (some lemonade) seemed to help. This particular point still stands, I would say: it’s harder to push for new goals when we’re tired, although it’s definitely still possible, especially if we’re well-prepared.

Is willpower a reservoir or a skill set?
But does this mean we use up willpower itself and need to regenerate it, or does it just mean that we use up our physical energy and have less of that to use in exerting our willpower? Just to share my current belief–this is nothing I’ve seen tested yet in any study, although that would certainly be of interest to me–I don’t think willpower really does get used up at all. What is willpower, after all? It’s often characterized as being like a reservoir or an electrical charge, something that we have a limited amount of and can use up. In reality, though, effectively exerting willpower isn’t really a matter of struggling against temptation and winning, at least not most of the time: instead, it’s a matter of learning and using the right skills to redirect ourselves. In other words, it requires learning and applying what we learn rather than brute force.

For instance, if I’m tempted to stay up late into the night to watch a movie I just received even though I know I need to be up early the next morning, it might be possible for me to dredge up a stern enough “No!” to force myself, resentfully, off to bed. But it’s definitely possible for me to ask myself questions like “Will I enjoy this movie just about as much if I watch it later?” and “Would it also be enjoyable right now to climb in bed and get some rest?” and “Will I be happier tomorrow morning if I watch this movie or if I hold off?” and “What if I just go get ready for bed, then see if I’m still as keen on watching the movie?”

All of these questions are strategies for looking at my situation in a different–and more complete–way, questions that can help me line up my actions with my long-term happiness instead of with whatever short-term pleasure offers itself–especially since, if I’m patient, I can often get some of the pleasure anyway without such a big cost.

But after that, I deserve to make bad choices!
A special situation that can make willpower seem like it’s getting “used up” is what schema therapy (of which more in future posts) calls the “entitlement schema,” the idea some of us often get that we deserve some pleasurable thing regardless of its effect on our long-term happiness. Having to exert willpower in one area can activate this schema, making it harder to exert willpower later. For instance, a person might think “I didn’t get to have that chocolate cake earlier, so now I deserve to eat this ice cream.” These kinds of statements sound like they make sense, but they really don’t when we examine them, because past good choices don’t make current bad choices any less bad. When I find myself running into problems like these, I try to remember to use idea repair to remind myself what’s really important.

An entitlement schema can make it seem like we’re using up willpower when all we may really be doing is having trouble reconciling ourselves to the good choices we’ve already made. This isn’t fatigue, just an attitude issue.

In the end, our mental resources are finite: we can only handle so much at once. But our mental resources also seem to often be much greater than we expect or give ourselves credit for, and even when it might seem for a moment like we’ve run out of willpower, if we search a little, we may find great untapped reserves ready to carry us forward–lemonade or no lemonade.

Photo by apesara

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