Women's Willpower Problem

Your head says it's time to lose a few pounds, but your hand reaches for another cookie. Why is it that even when we want to be good, we end up being so bad? It's a question that nags at us, particularly during this time of year. After the ravages of Halloween, Thanksgiving beckons and then holiday parties. You face one temptation after another, and even though you want to resist, you often feel you can't.

According to the American Psychological Association's annual stress survey, released earlier this week, women are much more likely than men to say they lack the willpower to make lifestyle changes that could improve their health and reduce stress. But when researchers look at what women mean by willpower, it turns out that it's frequently something other than a failure of character. In fact, says Helen Coons, director of the Women's Mental Health Center in Philadelphia, "willpower" is often "a misleading label" for what's actually going on.

When some women say they lack willpower, they really mean they're exhausted—too tired to make the changes they need to make, Coons says. Depression is another saboteur of good intentions; women are twice as likely as men to suffer from this mood disorder. Unrealistic goals also keep many women from putting more effort into becoming healthier. "Because they can't lose 25 pounds before Christmas, they simply shut down," Coons says.

Unreasonable expectations hurt women in other ways as well. Many women think they are being "selfish" if they spend time taking care of themselves when there are so many others—children, aging parents, even co-workers—who are counting on them, Coons says.

How do you turn all that around? Here are five suggestions, just in time for the holidays:

1. Get some rest.
Women are more likely than men to have difficulty falling and staying asleep and are also more likely to feel sleepy in the daytime. The reasons why depend on your stage of life. You could be pregnant, the mother of a baby, or suffering from that menopausal sleep killer, night sweats. Many women suffer from undiagnosed sleep disorders, such as apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep). Apnea is more common in men, but a woman's risk rises after 50. Obesity also increases the chances of having apnea—which creates that proverbial vicious circle. You're overweight, so you don't sleep well; then you're tired, so you don't pay attention to your diet or exercise. Inadequate rest also raises your risk of many chronic conditions, including heart disease.

For some advice on how to get more restful sleep and information about sleep disorders, check out the National Sleep Foundation's page on women and sleep.

2. Treat depression.
Women are more prone to mood disorders like depression or anxiety and often don't get the help they need. When you're feeling low, change seems impossible. Depression also makes it more likely that you will engage in poor health behaviors like overeating or not getting enough exercise. And here's still another reason to seek help: mothers who are depressed put their children at risk for depression, anxiety, and social problems. There are many ways to treat depression, including medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy. According to a research review by the nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration, behavioral therapy—combined with diet and exercise guidance—seems to be a particularly effective way to help people lose weight. Basically, the treatment consists of teaching you ways to think differently about how you deal with difficult situations. This Mayo Clinic site has a good explanation of how it works.

Anxiety is also much more common in women than in men and can defeat efforts to change. Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema has done intriguing research on how women "ruminate" too much, repeatedly going over decisions they've made or problems they're facing. All that rumination leads to increased risk of anxiety and depression.

Anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep are often related. Women suffering from depression can have trouble sleeping. Anxiety can also keep you up. One common scenario: you're trying to get some sleep but can't because you're worried about the next day's tasks. Coons suggests making a list of what you have to do about an hour before bed and then putting it away until the morning. At night, rest should take priority.

3. Have more realistic expectations.
If you're embarking on a diet and exercise regimen to squeeze into a size 0, there's no way you can win (unless, of course, you're starting from a size 2). Instead, Coons advises focusing on small, achievable goals that set you up for success. Instead of trying to run a mile, walk for 10 minutes a day at first and gradually increase your exercise time. Don't try to lose a huge amount of weight in a short period of time. Just try to lose the first five. When you've reached that goal, head for the next five. "When women take small steps that add up, we tend to feel better and we feel a sense of accomplishment," Coons says.

4. Seek support.
Very few people can make huge changes in their lives without help. In the APA stress survey, two thirds of adults said they had been told by a health-care provider that they had a chronic condition, most often high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Seventy percent said they had been told to do things like lose weight, get more exercise, or stop smoking in order to become healthier. But very few said they were offered support to make those changes. "I don't think that health-care providers recognize that changing your behavior is just not that easy," says Katherine Nordal, the APA's executive director for professional practice.

Doctors aren't the only ones who can provide support. Recent research has shown that online diet groups can help, especially because you can connect from work or home—whenever you feel you need an extra boost to stay on track. Coons says another way women can get the help they need is from other women who have the same goals. Find a walking partner, and you can help keep each other on schedule. If you're spending chunks of time ferrying kids to and from practice, try carpooling with another mother so you can give each other time to work out. Involve your spouse and kids. "Instead of watching TV after dinner, the whole family goes for a walk," Coons says.

5. Take time for yourself.
None of these strategies will work unless women accept that it's OK to put themselves first for a little while. Coons says a good metaphor is the directions you get from flight attendants just before takeoff: if you're traveling with small children, put on your own oxygen mask first. Then you're ready to help someone else. The same advice applies to becoming healthier. If you take care of yourself, you'll be much more able to take care of all the other people who need you.