Having an injury can be a serious bummer. You’re stuck on the couch instead of training for your next race. You’re forced to “take it easy” instead of crushing workouts. But a recent study from the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute at Ohio University shows that a simple visualization exercise could help you retain strength — even while you’re out of commission.
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In a study published in The Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers immobilized 29 individuals by putting their non-dominant hands in wrist casts for four weeks. Throughout the month, half of the participants participated in mental imagery exercises while the other half went about their normal lives.
Participants who completed mental imagery exercises lost 50 percent less strength than those who did not.
Five times each week, the 14 subjects in the visualization group were verbally guided through mental exercise sessions, which instructed them to imagine flexing their immobile wrist as hard as possible for five seconds. Participants heard instructions such as: “When we tell you to start, we want you to imagine that you are pushing in against a handgrip as hard as you can and continue to do so until we tell you to stop.” For two minutes, they alternated between five seconds of visualization and five seconds of rest, completing 13 rounds of the exercise.
“They [were] urging themselves to contract a muscle as opposed to watching themselves contract a muscle,” says study author Dr. Brian Clark, PhD, director of the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute and professor of physiology at Ohio University.
Based on the results, brains and brawn might be more connected than you’d think. Dr. Clark and his team found that the participants who completed mental imagery exercises lost approximately 50 percent less strength than the participants who did not perform any visualization. “The magnitude of the effect was a surprise,” says Dr. Clark, and highlight the fact that mind and body are more connected than most people initially believe.
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Why such a difference? During the visualization exercises, participants were able to activate muscles using their nervous system, even though they weren’t able to physically flex. “Muscles are basically puppets of the nervous system,” says Dr. Clark. In previous studies, mental exercises were shown to activate areas in the cortex, including the premotor and M1 regions that are also switched on during actual motor behaviors.
After all, muscle mass isn’t the only determinant of strength, Clark says. Research indicates that your nervous system also plays an important role in raw power — as well as athletic performance. That’s why many professional, amateur and Olympic competitors visualize success before they compete. Even public speakers “hunker down” and get in the zone, says Dr. Clark. “We all do this, it’s just not something we [acknowledge often],” he says.
Unfortunately, according to Dr. Clark, lying in bed and thinking about push-ups won’t tone your arms. But, it could help you bounce back from an injury or illness that takes you out of the gym for a while. You snooze, you lose when it comes to keeping your nervous system sharp. Previous research shows that physical weakness is often correlated with the nervous system’s inability to full activate muscles.
“If you’ve got someone with a medical condition where exercise isn’t necessarily an option, something like imagery could speed up the recovery process,” Clark says. The visualization of exercises will remind the brain how to communicate with the body. “You’re trying not to forget how to do those things,” he says.