Your Mind’s Eye: Can imagery help with your fitness and nutrition?

Imagery in health and fitness

Imagery Part I for Fitness & Nutrition

Imagery. Most people have heard of it. Sometimes it’s called visualization or mental rehearsal. Unfortunately, it sometimes carries a new age or meditative association with it- turning people off. This doesn’t have to be the case. Especially because extensive research backs the claims of its effectiveness. In terms of health and fitness, imagery increases motivation, improves self-confidence, helps to manage emotional responses, and keeps you focused. Once you know why it works and how you can use it, it’s a tool for you to achieve your goals. Whether you quickly imagine your workout tonight, or you spend 15 minutes in Progressive Relaxation to achieve a lower level of stress, you’re practicing imagery.

What Is Imagery?

Imagery is the mental experience of a real or imagined event. It draws on general information from a memory you’ve experienced before. And then chooses the closest memory you have to the actual experience to simulates it. The concept and power of imagery first gained notoriety in people affected with Phantom Limb Pain. Individuals with this condition report feeling sensation, typically pain, in an amputated limb. Obviously, the limb no longer exists so it couldn’t be possible for the pain to be real. Doctors started realizing the power the brain and its mental images have. Phantom Limb Pain is a very real condition and professionals use techniques of mental imagery to improve it.

Research and Use of Imagery

Research continues to support the impact of mental imagery. Psychoneuroimmunology, the study of interactions between the mind and physical/physiological health, uses guided imagery for health interventions. The goal of guided imagery in these situations is to speed up the healing process, increase coping abilities, and improve the overall quality of life. Read specific examples of research of imagery and its use for cancer treatment here.

Imagery isn’t just for healing. In fact, it’s widely used among elite athletes and successful corporate executives. Guided imagery is the most common sport psychology technique used with Olympic and professional athletes. Over 90% of coaches agree it works and make sure it’s part of an overall training program.

There are different theories to explain why imagery works, including the psychoneuromuscular theory, the symbolic learning theory, and the bio-informational theory. Regardless of how it works, scientific literature knows two things for certain. First, the same areas of the brain show stimulation during real and imagined events. Secondly, when you picture yourself performing a certain movement, muscle fibers responsible for the motion activate. overall, the brain doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined events. Consequently, you can use this to your advantage.

When to Use Imagery to Achieve Your Goals

Practicing imagery doesn’t have to mean meditating in a quiet room. It can be a brief mental rehearsal of things you want to happen. Do you want more motivation? Have you ever thought, “How can I increase my self-confidence?”. If you could harness your stress and emotional responses, would you be able to achieve more? Do you need help staying focused on your nutrition and fitness plan? Research shows imagery can do all these things.

Increase motivation

Practicing imagery can increase your motivation to workout and eat healthy. When you imagine how to overcome the obstacles of eating right this week, you learn new strategies. You’re mentally practicing how to be successful first. This improves your belief you can do it in real life. Additionally, imagery can increase motivation by giving you a feeling of purpose. For example, instead of running on a treadmill and watching tv, you could imagine being in a fun run race. You visualize the sense of accomplishment you’d feel to complete the race. Imagine the music playing and the on-lookers cheering you as you pass.  This type of quick visualization is a better mental vacation than watching a screen in front of you. It’s not subjective, it’s a fact. Using imagery during mundane exercises increases intrinsic motivation. The more intrinsic motivation you have, the more you like doing it.

Enhance self-confidence

No one wants to say they lack self-confidence, but we all do. In health and fitness, you might think you can’t make it through the holidays and stick to your meal plan. You might think you could never run a marathon. Maybe you don’t even think you’ll remember to pack your workout clothes for an upcoming trip. Imagery can help you by creating feelings of competence when you see yourself being successful. Imagery is especially important in mastering skills needed to achieve goals. The more self-confidence you have, the more often you’ll do those healthy behaviors.

Think about something coming up that’s going to be tough. Maybe you need 30 minutes of cardio today but you don’t know how you’re going to find time. Imagine being successful. Think through your day and what you’ll change to make your workout happen.

This is just an example. To make it work for you, think of something you don’t think you can do but know you should. Mentally rehearse the possibilities of how you’re going to get it done. Think of the solutions, practice them, and see what happens. You’ll deal better with the barriers life throws at your healthy lifestyle journey.

Manage stress and emotional responses

Think of the last time you lapsed on your workout or nutrition program. How did you respond to it emotionally? Did you feel disappointed for not hitting your goals? Did the temporary detour from healthy living cause you more stress by way of disappointment? You can prevent a lapse from turning into a full-blown relapse.

Are you not in the mood to work out? Does the idea of making a healthy meal tonight sound like a hassle? If you imagine these events with energizing emotions around the activity, it’ll adjust your mood the same way.

Similarly, if you imagine your experience at the gym as a stress relief. And further visualize it as a way for you to leave your annoyances of the day behind you, you’ll feel positive about going to work out. Imagining the emotion you want to feel will, in turn, cause the same response for you.

Improve Concentration

You might not realize it, but concentration is important for a healthy and fit lifestyle. It’s too easy to think about all the things you must do other than stay on track. When you’re going for a run, your mind might wander to your daily checklist. So, you cut your run short to start on the list. To improve concentration and focus during your workouts, use imagery. Focus your attention on how you feel, what you see, and things you hear. Increase your awareness to everything around you to stay focused on the task at hand.

The visualization techniques here are simple and quick. The intention is to bring your awareness to them for your advantage. The guided imagery elite athletes and successful corporate executives do is more disciplined. There’s more to it than just quick imaging a successful board presentation or a quick pole vault jump. This article is Part I in a series of information on imagery. If you want more and want to be able to do it better, be on the look out for Part II of imagery where we’ll explore the specific practice of successful imagery.


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