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Jessica Ennis voted as UK’s top willpower hero

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by Cancer Research UK | News

3 December 2012

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Jessica Ennis has topped a list of 30 of the UK’s willpower heroes*, picking up more than 20 per cent of the public vote, in a survey released today to mark the launch of Cancer Research UK’s new fundraising campaign, Dryathlon™.  

Following her heptathlon success at the Olympics, Jessica topped the poll for demonstrating the highest willpower, closely followed by The Queen who took more than 10 per cent of the vote for her lifetime dedication to her country.  The survey of 2,000 people* also revealed that other popular willpower heroes were Victoria Pendleton (6 per cent), Nelson Mandela (6 per cent), Mo Farah (5 per cent), Bradley Wiggins (5 per cent) and Mohammad Ali (4 per cent).

The survey looking at willpower marks the launch of the charity’s latest fundraising campaign Dryathlon™, which is encouraging people across the UK to test their willpower and take the challenge of staying off alcohol for January, raising money for a good cause at the same time.

The survey also looked at the nation’s willpower, with some interesting results.

Men are thought to have less willpower than women once they set their mind to a challenge, taking 19 per cent of the vote compared with 31 per cent.

When it comes to giving things up for a month, one in five men (22 per cent) named sex one of the hardest things to give up, whilst only one in 10 women (9 per cent) agreed, with more than double the number saying they would find it harder to give up chocolate than sex**.

Alcohol, chocolate and sex were each voted the most difficult thing to forego by around 16 per cent of people, followed by caffeine and swearing, which both picked up around 10 per cent of the vote.

And when asked about how their willpower changed over the year, half of the UK admitted that the winter period – in particular Christmas and New Year – is when we are at our weakest.

Men are still thought of as being commitment-shy, with more than half (56 per cent) of the nation saying women are more committed to relationships compared to 5 per cent of men. Three fifths (59 per cent) also thought that women were more likely to be able to abstain from sex – whilst only 5 per cent thought men could.

Whilst people thought men are stronger willed in work and sport, almost a third (31 per cent) thought that women were more likely to be able to stick to a diet than men.

Robert West, Professor of Health Psychology at the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre explains, “When you take exposure to temptation and strength of desire out of the equation you are left with this thing called ‘willpower’: the force that our plans have in controlling our actions. Individuals with more willpower are probably more likely to achieve their objectives, whatever these might be.

“Some believe that willpower is like a muscle – it can get tired but it can also be strengthened with training. The idea is that getting people to practice doing something that requires self-control builds a general ability to do this. There are also studies showing that when people make their personal rules very clear with well-defined boundaries, they are more likely to stick to them.”

Those who want to test their own willpower and take the Dryathlon™ challenge will be encouraged to raise money for the charity’s research via sponsorship from friends and family, and / or pledging money they have saved by going dry for the month. There will also be the opportunity to purchase a Golden Pass for a suggested donation of £15, which allows the owner to take 24 hours off – helpful for weddings, birthdays or those who just fancy a night off.

Ed Aspel, Head of Dryathlon™ at Cancer Research UK and already in training, explains:

“We wanted to explore the concept of willpower ahead of launching Dryathlon™ as we know getting the nation to go dry for January is going to be a challenge for some, and it will take an element of willpower to succeed.

“But have no fear!  We’ll be supporting our Dryathletes the whole way, by providing lots of motivational tips and content via our website and social media channels. It may be a difficult road ahead but we have faith in the British public and think they have what it takes to succeed.”

Those that think they’ve got the willpower to go dry for an entire month can sign up to become a Dryathlete via the website


For media enquiries contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8315 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.