The Physical Fight for Willpower

April 23, 2020

My heart rate increases. My mind starts racing for anything to distract it. I need my phone. I need to check my email or google something. 

This isn’t a want. This is a need. I NEED to do something RIGHT NOW. 

Yin Yoga 

In support of my willpower challenge to stretch more, I have incorporated yin yoga into my repertoire. Yin yoga is the opposite of “yang” styles of yoga (aptly named, I know…), which are known for being vigorous, fast-paced, and physically demanding. Conversely, ying is a slow-paced, meditative practice targeting your deep connective tissues, like your fascia, joins, and bones. 

Now, don’t get it twisted. “Slow-paced, meditative practice” does not mean easy or lazy. If you’ve ever gotten a deep tissue massage, you know that deep means an hour of horribly tortuous, drawn out pain masquerading as healing and good for you.

Truth be told – I actually love deep tissue massages. But, like yin yoga, they required deep breathing, surrender, and patience. Fighting the pain only makes it worse, which brings me back to last Sunday afternoon. 

The YouTube instructor calmly invites me to sink into a low lung. My legs are trembling, and I’m fairly certain my hip flexors will rip at any moment. 

While I honor my body, I also know that 15 seconds into this posture is not the time to release. Instead, my body is fighting an internal battle – I want to do something (get out of the posture), but know I shouldn’t. I should breathe and surrender. 

Welcome back to the Willpower Challenge series in which I’m sharing what I’m learning from the Willpower Instinct and experiencing as I tackle my own willpower challenge – stretching. 

Week 2 Recap

  1. Willpower is actually three powers – I will. I won’t. I want.
  2. Willpower Challenge: I will stretch 10 minutes in the morning, after a workout, and before bed. Ben will workout 30-minutes a day, at least three days a week. 
  3. We named our impulsive minds – Comfortable Carol and Lazy Larry.

My Take


Surprisingly, it’s easiest for me to stretch at night. I expected the evenings to be the most difficult time to exert willpower because fatigue diminishes self-control (which is why so many of us find ourselves eating “off limit” foods at night). However, it seems I had more self-control because one of the reasons I don’t want to stretch is because it feels like a waste of time. At night, I don’t have anything else I really want to do + I stretch while watching a show with Ben. 

Take away: Define the threats, excuses, and triggers related to your willpower challenge so you can optimize your day accordingly and create a plan for executing self-control even when you aren’t in an optimal state. More on that later.


When I was inclined to skip stretching after my workout, I reminded myself that I would feel so much better on my run tomorrow if I stretched now. I’d run further, easier, with less pain. Additionally, I didn’t want to stretch after my run because I thought, “I’m sweaty. I don’t want to mess up the carpet.” Instead of skipping, I stretched outside. When it was raining, I stretched on our porch.

Take away: Remind yourself of what you want. Create solutions to your limiting thoughts. 

This week, we explore the physiological response of willpower and what we can do to get our body work for us instead of against us when trying to exert self-control. 

Pause and Plan

You’ve likely heard of “fight-or-flight” – your body’s response to an external stress or threat. In response to an acute stress, your body’s sympathetic nervous system activates in an effort to keep you safe. Hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline are released, resulting in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate. *

According to Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, self-control has a biological response, just like stress. When facing a willpower challenge, the brain and body undergo various changes to help you resist the desire for instant gratification. Segerstrom calls these changes the pause-and-plan response. 

As opposed to fight-or-flight, which is a response to an external conflict, pause-and-plan responds to an internal conflict. Your instincts are telling you to smoke that cigarette or skip that run, but your rational mind says to do the opposite. The best thing to do in this moment is slow down, take a breath, and control your impulsive mind. When you take these steps (i.e., pause-and-plan), your body enters into a calmer state, giving you the freedom you need to respond in a productive manner. 

Your Willpower Signature

The best predictor of willpower might surprise you. It’s not mental toughness, athletic prowess, or even exhibiting willpower in other areas of your life. It’s heart rate variability.

Take a peek at your health app. You may see “HRV”, which stands for heart rate variability and is a measure of the variance in time between heartbeats. Unlike a metronome, your heart rate does not tick evenly. 

Test it now: Find your pulse by placing two fingers on the inside of your wrist. Take a few deep breaths in and out. Continue following this pattern, and you will find that the interval between beats gets longer when you exhale and shorter when you inhale. 

HRV is regulated by the autonomic nervous system. When you are under stress, the sympathetic nervous system takes over. Heart rate goes up, and variability goes down. When you are relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, resulting in a decrease in heart rate and increase in variability. 

Why does this matter? 

An increase in HRV results in a calming, focusing effect for the body – you can pause-and-plan. Studies show that people with a higher HRV are more resilient and better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, and managing stress.

Three ways to increase your heart rate variability

Optimize your breathing pattern

The average adult takes 12 to 20 breaths per minute. However, slowing down your breathing to four to six breaths per minute immediately boosts your willpower by shifting the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control.

Take Action: Pause. Begin to slow your breathing. 


It seems exercise is at the top of the list when it comes to optimizing anything in your life, and for good reason. It makes a HUGE difference. I won’t go into all the reasons here because, if you’ve read this far, you’re likely the type of person who knows the benefits. 

Let’s keep it simple: Exercising, even just a few minutes at a time, increases willpower. DO IT!

Take Action: Go for a 20-minute walk today, stretch for 10 minutes, or do 5 minutes of high intensity exercise like jumping jacks, sprints, high-knees, pushups and squats. Get your blood flowing and willpower going.


In an upcoming blog, I am going to share how I meditate and the benefits I’ve experienced as a result of creating a meditation practice, so I will keep it short here.

Meditation helps improve your willpower because:

  1. It increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (i.e., the part of the brain that controls willpower).
  2. It makes us more aware.
  3. You WILL want to move during mediation. Resist the temptation and you will increase your willpower. 

You don’t need a recording or guided meditation to begin meditation (although there are great ones like those offered on the Calm app). 

Simple Meditation Practice

Simply, find a quiet space. 

Set a timer for five minutes.

Close your eyes.

Begin focusing on your breath. Recognize the feeling of the breath as you inhale and exhale. 

If your mind wanders, recognize it without judgment and bring your attention back to your breathing.

Repeat as many times as necessary until the timer sounds. 

Simple! Well done. You meditated. 

That’s all for today. If you’re following along with the challenge, please share below. I look forward to sharing more with you all next week.

Like what you're seeing?

Then consider signing up for my free weekly newsletter. It's a collection of interesting finds and inspirational content about psychology, health, holistic well-being, and faith.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a comment