Visualisation: Can You Imagine Your Way to Fit?

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Today, exercise itself isn’t the only tool we have to increase our fitness. People use various other strategies to increase adaptations or enhance recovery from training, from ice baths to infrared clothing. Another underappreciated strategy may be visualisation- the act of mentally simulating a movement. While it’s long been used by athletes to psychologically prepare for performance, its value is not limited to the elite. Performed appropriately, it may enhance anyone’s gains from physical training programs, and may even provide some benefits in the absence of training. Recent research is giving us more and more insight into just how it works.

Key Points:

  1. Mentally simulating a movement can make us more prepared- or at least feel more prepared. Anecdotal reports and self-ratings suggest it can help us move with maximal precision and efficacy, enhance learning of a new skill, and increase motivation and confidence.
  2. It can increase strength and prompt physiological responses similar to those seen in actual movement. It may have value in rehabilitation and recovery from injury, although more research is necessary.
  3. Visualisation produces neural adaptations similar to those attained through physical training.
  4. It appears most effective when the movement is visualied just as it would be performed, taking into account both how the movement would look and feel. 

What are the benefits of visualisation?

Improved preparation, learning and movement performance

It appears that simply visualising movement (more technically known as mental imagery) without even performing it can improve performance of general motor tasks.  For example, it can improve how precisely and effectively we move. This is significant for a number of reasons: moving in the best possible manner will enhance the benefits of the activity, improve efficiency and reduce risk of injury. If you’re anything like me, you may be familiar with how awkward form can cause unwanted bodily pain or discomfort, which can then hinder you from progressing your fitness regimen further. 

The principle behind this is that visualisation can make us more prepared for performance and programme our minds to execute a task with maximal technical proficiency. It can enhance the learning process. You can also use it to increase your motivation and confidence. 

These principles are all logical and are well supported by anecdotal reports. However, studies are unfortunately often limited in size and therefore statistical power. A small study of 20 karate practitioners indeed showed that they felt more mentally prepared for competition with the use of visualisation. And the benefit was greater when it is practiced consistently over longer durations (3 months vs 1-2 months). Ideally future studies of larger size would confirm this.  In addition, while it is promising that the athletes rated themselves as better prepared, there was no assessment of the impact of this on actual performance. This should be rectified. 

Increased strength

A common use of visualisation is to increase strength. It is no substitute for physical exercise- you definitely can’t expect the same gains from imagining as from doing exercise (sorry!), just as you can’t expect healthy testosterone levels to keep you buff if you’re not training. However, a meta-analysis from 2018 showed that it could also produce modest increases in voluntary strength of upper and lower limbs when used alone. Although one might logically assume that physical exercise plus visualisation produces greater results than either alone, this meta-analysis didn’t provide a clear indication of this… This could be either because it’s an incorrect assumption, or because the studies available for analysis had insufficient power to provide an answer.

Visualisation in post-operative rehabilitation

The above mentioned effects mean that visualisation may have a role in rehabilitation- for example, following knee replacement surgery. A small study from 2019 showed that the group practicing regular physical therapy plus motor imagery showed a smaller decrease in quadricep strength than the group who performed physical therapy only. (Quadricep strength commonly deteriorates as a result of surgery). People using motor imagery also avoided deteriorations in their gait, such as altered stride length and cadence and support periods. These effects were shown in the short-term (over 4 weeks), but we don’t know about the long term effects. 

Visualisation in recovery from injury 

A 2018 meta-analysis of visualisation use among injured athletes indicated that it’s unclear if it benefits functional mobility, pain and self-efficacy. That is to say, some improvements were seen, but they were not statistically significant enough to draw strong conclusions. Meta-analysis aims to sum the findings of disparate studies, to provide more definitive conclusions. It can be particularly useful in cases where individual studies are not conclusive. Therefore the failure of this meta-analysis suggests more robust studies are needed to provide more certainty. 

Physiological responses to visualisation

Visualisation can elicit acute responses within the body. For example, heart rate and respiration rate may increase (immediately) in proportion to the intensity of the imagined task. This has been seen amongst people picturing walking at increasing speeds. 

These responses are similar to what happens with actual movement- albeit, to a different degree. For example, in one study participants who mentally simulated running at 12km per hour showed physiological responses similar to those provoked by actually walking at 5km per hour. An earlier study showed that visualising a leg exercise (with 15kg and 19kg loads) produced about 75% of the increase in heart rate of actually doing the exercise. In contrast, respiration rate increased during simulation more than during exercise. 

How does visualisation work?

The fitness and skill adaptations are created via visualisation’s effect on the nervous system. Positron emission tomography (PET) and functional MRI evidence shows that the neural networks activated during imagining are very similar to those activated when actually performing movement. This is because the intentions and use of motor planning are alike. While visualisation doesn’t consistently activate the big player in actual movement (the primary motor cortex), it does activate other brain regions involved in motor execution (eg: the supplementary motor area, the premotor cortex and the cerebellum). 

This explains the ability of visualisation to modestly increase strength. Strength is a product of muscle condition (which visualisation doesn’t effect) and the nerves which serve them (which it does). In essence, mentally simulating forceful muscle contractions increases brain activity, which then increases the neural messages sent to muscles. 

The activation of similar neural pathways is also reflected in the observed increases in heart rate and respiration. There is clearly no need for increased delivery of blood or oxygen to muscles that you are only imagining contracting. In fact, oxygen usage has been seen to decrease during visualisation. Rather, it is thought that the acute responses reflect the autonomic nervous system getting prepared in anticipation of action (should it arise). 

Any improvements in performance may be partly explained by the mental models that are produced from visualisation. These models predict the sensations you’ll experience as a consequence of any imagined movement. (This likewise happens in actual movement). If you repeatedly simulate a movement, the model of predicted outcome is contrasted to the desired outcome… As a result, the plan may be updated and refined to produce a better predicted outcome. Ultimately, this may result in more precise movement when it comes to action.  

How can you maximise your gains from visualisation?

Imagining movement both visually and kinaesthetically (being aware of how your body would feel in an imagined position in space) is beneficial. These forms of visualisation activate different parts of the brain, which have different roles in movement. In order to increase strength, imagining your muscles contracting is more effective than picturing yourself doing the movement from a third person perspective. 

It is best to visualise movements at the pace you would actually perform them.

From available studies, it is thought that using visualisation three times a week for four weeks, with 2-3 sets of 25 repetitions is an effective program for increasing strength. The session should take about 15 minutes. Whether this is actually the optimal program is uncertain, as all possibilities for intervention have not been studied, nor do we know what the impact of longer term training may be.

The Verdict

The evidence that visualisation produces tangible improvements to fitness is patchy but promising. The activation of neural pathways (of which there is mounting evidence) provides a good explanation for why it may improve preparation and execution of movement, and for observed increases in muscular strength and acute changes in heart rate and respiration. It may also have a role in rehabilitation from surgery and injury. Further robust research is warranted, however in the very least, visualisation is a harmless, quick practice to add to your training regimen… and if anecdotal reports and existing evidence is accurate, it may indeed increase your fitness.  

How have you used visualisation?


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