Cake Now or Abs Later? How Your Brain May Be Sabotaging Your Long-Term Fitness Goals

July 29, 2020 - 11 minutes read

Quiet your impulsive brain to make better, healthier choices.

We all know what it feels like to tap into our will-power. Maybe you’ve been in the midst of trying to eat better when a full chocolate cake ended up on your kitchen counter. Maybe you intended to go for a walk but lost track of time scrolling through your phone. Or maybe you meant to put your tax return into your savings account but somehow ended up with a hefty Amazon order heading your way instead.

In each of these cases, is it a simple issue of poor restraint or is there something deeper at work in our brains when it comes to impulse and decision-making?

Short-term gratification vs. long-term goals

If making a decision has ever felt like two parts of your brain were competing against one another, it’s because they actually were.

During a 2004 study out of Princeton, test subjects were asked to make a set of choices to gain one of two types of rewards: those that were small and immediate vs. those that were larger but delayed – all while having their brains scanned.

Upon examining the results, researchers found that our brains are wired with two very distinct systems of decision-making: one that’s dedicated to our short-term, emotional response (our “feeling” brain) and the other that focuses on our longer-term, abstract reasoning (our “thinking” brain).

As you may have guessed, the emotional (or “feeling”) side of our brain is responsible for pushing us towards impulsive decisions that provide instant gratification – things like: shopping sprees, consuming junk food and engaging in screen time. Heavily influenced by short-term rewards, this side doesn’t place much consideration on how these choices will affect us in the future and can often lead to a feeling of regret once the dopamine rush has subsided and the logical side of the brain comes back online.

On the flip side, the logical (or “thinking”) side of our brain is very aware of the future consequences stemming from our decisions. This is the side that tries to reason with us and prompts us to consider how today’s actions will affect tomorrow’s well being. This more responsible part keeps us focused on our long-term goals and drives us to do the things that will benefit us in the future, such as saving for retirement, eating healthy and getting off the couch to engage in a little exercise.

Tipping the scales

While both sides of the brain are equally necessary for different aspects of our lives, the attractive nature of the emotional side can quickly steer us off course of our long-term goals if left unchecked. To set ourselves up for success in areas like fitness, nutrition or wellness, where positive benefits are the result of long-term consistency, it’s important to be aware of the situational factors that can push us further toward the impulsive brain and away from the logical one.

The effect of proximity

Let’s imagine a situation where you’re trying to improve your eating habits. If someone were to ask if you’d like a piece of cake in an hour, but it’s a block away and you’re already full from lunch, it’s relatively easy to let the logical side of your brain take over and decline the offer in favour of a healthier alternative.

Now imagine the same stakes, only the person asking wants to know if you’d like a piece of cake now and proceeds to place a frosty slice directly in front of you. Unless you hate cake (and who hates cake?), it becomes exponentially harder to maintain your healthy-eating goals under this new set of parameters.

In both cases, the offer was the same yet the proximity to the reward (in this case: a sugar-rush) became that much closer in scenario two. As discovered through the Princeton study, the easier it is to see, touch or smell an anticipated object or reward, the further the scales tip away from the logical brain and toward the impulsive desires of the emotional one.

Stress and the emotional brain

Another factor that can cause our thinking brain to “power down” is stress. When there’s too much going on in our lives, we tend to narrow our focus towards the needs of today. With this far more short-sighted view, it’s easy to lose track of all the long-term benefits of our healthy habits, and may offer an explanation as to why healthy eating and regular exercise are typically two of the first things we let slip when life gets stressful.

Though freeing up time may feel like a relief in the moment, stepping off our healthy trajectory can actually lead to further stress in the future. In addition to decreased energy levels, a damped mood and lower cognitive functioning, an ironic result of neglecting our health is the added stress that often comes from the internal guilt we experience from not sticking with those habits. Suddenly, the choice that was supposed to move us away from stress has actually propelled us further toward it.

Creating a level playing field

To really hack your brain and set yourself up for success toward your long-term goals, here are four simple methods you can try to work more on the logical side of your brain and make better, healthier decisions:

1) Manage your environment

As proximity plays such a big role in cravings and impulsive decision-making, removing negative “rewards” like beer in the fridge or junk food at the office can be a very effective method of controlling temptation.

This same principle can even work in reverse and promote positive actions by making it easy and convenient to engage in healthy behaviours. This could include keeping a yoga mat in the living room to encourage daily exercise, healthy food in the fridge to snack on, or a bottle of water beside your bed to increase your H2O intake.

2) Organize your schedule into priorities

When life gets really busy, it’s common for your energy levels to drop and your reasoning skills to become challenged. Set aside time to do a brain-dump of everything you have on your plate, then sort those tasks into two columns: ones that give you energy and ones that drain it.

Once you have your two lists, prioritize your tasks, ensuring that you have a healthy dose of energizing tasks near the top and pushing more draining tasks further toward the bottom.

3) Work with the emotional side of your brain

Though the logical and emotional brains typically battle against one another, they can also cooperate together if given the opportunity.

If you notice that you’re always impulsively reaching for sugar or caffeine, use your reasoning side to ask yourself why your energy levels might be low. Are you sleeping poorly? Are you dehydrated? Have you been inside all day? Then use these answers to start making small changes in other aspects of your life and see how that affects your cravings.

4) Lean into a little positive accountability

Sometimes it takes a little extra accountability to keep you living in the logical brain. While you don’t want to rely entirely on others to keep you going (intrinsic motivation is a powerful tool), sharing your long-term goals with others or opting to work with a coach provides a back-up system of external accountability that can kick in when the emotional brain seems to be stuck in the driver’s seat.

Alternately, try working with a fitness app or habit tracker to create some visual accountability for yourself.

The takeaway

When it comes to achieving our long-term goals, there are a lot more elements at play than simple will-power. With a constant battle occurring between our logical and emotional brains, health and wellness goals can be challenging to achieve but, by understanding the subconscious thought-processes that could be limiting our success along the way, we have the opportunity to set up systems that can minimize our inner saboteur and help us gain better results in the long run.