Exercising When Immobilized: Could Picturing Ourselves Exercising Have Some of the Benefits of Actual Exercising?

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by Nils Osmar. Updated September 10, 2022. Medical Disclaimer

Could closing our eyes and “visualizing” exercising –– imagining our muscles going through a range of motions and contractions which are not really occurring — have similar results to exercising? If so, could doing so help prevent age-related muscle loss or speed up the growth of new muscle?

  • Note: The word “visualizing”, as used in this article, isn’t being used in a mystical new-age sense.
  • I’m not talking about “visualizing riches” and having a check for $1,000,000.00 appear in your mailbox.
  • The study I’m referring to was looking at whether going through muscle contractions in our imaginations, in a specific guided way, could slow muscle loss in real life. T

Three groups

  • In this 2014 study, participants who were unable to exercise due to having their limbs immobilized “imagined” themselves exercising.
  • The mental exercises were in the form of specific guided imagery facilitated by a “trainer.” But no actual contractions were occurring.
  • A second group was immobilized for the same period of time, but did not do the guided imagery.
  • A third group was not immobilized.

The results

  • The guided visualization exercises did slow muscle loss during the period of inactivity.
  • They protected the immobilized group to a degree against the harm done by being immobilized.
  • They did not, however, result in new muscle growth in either immobilized group.
  • The group imagining (specific, familiar) exercises lost 50% less muscle than the group that didn’t “visualize working out.”

The results were discussed in a Science Daily Article called “Mind Over Matter: Can You Think Your Way to Strength?

From the article:

The nervous system’s ability to fully activate the muscle (called “voluntary activation” or VA) also rebounded more quickly in the imagery group compared to the non-imagery group.

“These findings suggest neurological mechanisms, most likely at the cortical level, contribute significantly to disuse-induced weakness, and that regular activation of the cortical regions via imagery attenuates weakness and VA by maintaining normal levels of inhibition,” the research team wrote…

The article “The power of the mind: the cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness” is published in the Journal of Neurophysiology. It is highlighted as one of this month’s “best of the best” as part of the American Physiological Society’s APSselect program.

My thoughts:

The idea that we may be able to influence the state of our health, and slow muscle loss by visualizing working out, is intriguing.

There were some limitations to the study; it would be nice to see it repeated with a larger number of participants. But its results are promising, and have some possible implications for pushing back against both muscle loss forced on us by being sedentary, and muscle loss associated with the aging process.

As we age, we tend to have diminishing returns from exercise, due in part to a drop in the hormones that support muscle growth. (The same amount of effort brings smaller results.) To complicate matters, some people develop joint pain or other physical problems that make it challenging for them to exercise. This study suggests that visualizing exercising might be a way of slowing their resulting muscle loss. A program of some sessions in which we actually exercise and some sessions in which we’re visualizing exercising might be another interesting experiment.

Other approaches

We can also push back against age-related muscle loss in a number of ways, including taking supplements such as creatine and HMB, as well as supplements such as longjack which increase testosterone levels may improve our response to exercising.

In my own case, I found that taking anti-aging supplements (such as NMN) for a few months gave me the energy to start exercising. After that, taking testosterone-boosting supplements improved the results of the exercise I was doing.

It’s interesting to speculate whether guided visualization like that used in the study might have some role as an adjunct to this kind of approach.

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