What if building up your muscle strength or improving your sporting performance were as easy as imagining yourself doing the exercise? Sure, it may sound New Agey but modern science reckons it’s possible.
Just ask any sporting star. Champions such as golfer Jack Nicklaus, tennis legend Roger Federer and an illustrious roll call of Olympians have known about ‘mental practice’ for years, using it as a key part of their training regime. And the best bit? Unlike winning Wimbledon or the PGA, anyone can do it.
It’s all about firing up ‘motor imagery’ using what’s sometimes known as our sixth sense – proprioception (also called kinesthesis). Basically, proprioception is the awareness of our own body: the position of our limbs, how our muscles feel, our sense of movement and balance.
Motor imagery takes it a step further. Rather than simply being aware of our body, we imagine ourselves exercising it – which muscles we’re using, the effort it takes, what it looks like. The result? Our heart rate and breathing increase for real. Whether it’s actual or imagined exercise, it activates the same part of the brain. (In the case of imagined exercise, though, another part of the brain also kicks in to inhibit physical movement. Which comes in kinda handy when you’re sitting in a crowded train, mentally running through your taekwondo routine…)
For professional sportspeople, imagining their performance down to the very last movement before a competition can give them the winning edge over rivals whose training is strictly physical. The power of conjuring up detailed motor imagery for mental practice is also said to boost surgeons’ success in the operating theatre and musicians’ mastery of their instruments.
But don’t just take our word for it. Endless research bears it out, from Edmund Jacobsen’s early studies into ‘neuromuscular states during mental activities’, to a Rutgers University experiment which found that golfers who imagined getting their ball into the hole before taking their shot were heaps more successful than those who didn’t. Not forgetting the one about increasing finger strength by visualising yourself doing pinky crunches, of course.
But there’s a catch. The human imagination may be a wonderful thing, but it can only do so much on its own. At some point, you’ll need to get off the couch and put your thoughts into action…
Image: Grigory Kravchenko