For some people, having the discipline just to make it to the gym is half the battle in staying fit. But new research suggests that the simple act of thinking about working out without actually doing it may be enough to tone muscle and even promote muscle growth.
Researchers from Ohio University discovered this after testing the power of intentional thought on a group of volunteers. Two groups of participants were given wrist casts for four weeks, immobilizing the use of one hand, with one of the groups told to sit and think intensely about working out for 11 minutes daily, five days a week.
Individuals in this group were specifically told to devote all their mental energy toward imagining flexing their arms, while the other group was given no specific instructions. At the end of four weeks, all participants from both groups were analyzed for muscle growth and atrophy.
Based on this assessment, it was determined that the exercise-thinking group had twice the amount of strength as the non-thinking group, demonstrating the power of mind over matter in achieving physical results.
“What our study suggests is that imagery exercises could be a valuable tool to prevent or slow muscles from becoming weaker when a health problem limits or restricts a person’s mobility,” said Brian Clark, author of the study and professor of physiology and neurosciences at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Focused thinking promotes improved mental strength
To better understand how this is possible, researchers conducted magnetic imaging tests to look at specific areas of the brain related to arm muscles. They found that a mutual relationship exists between body and brain, and that focused thinking can promote not only improved physical strength but also improved mental strength.
“Participants that imagine exercise not only had stronger arms but also a stronger brain,” explains Breitbart. “[T]heir mental exercises created stronger neuromuscular pathways.”
Neuromuscular pathways are the communication channels between the brain and muscles that prime the body for what will be required of it during intense training or exercise. These pathways allow for the sending of nerve impulses that signal heavy lifting, for instance, or cardiovascular movement.
Getting “pumped,” or mentally preparing oneself for exercise, is the physical act by which neuromuscular pathways are utilized. And science now shows that these pathways are directly accessed by the brain, which signals to the body and muscles how to behave and react to exercise, even when physical exercise does not actually occur.
This is not to say that a person should just think about exercising — real gains are obtained by real work. But these findings do illustrate the powerful relationship between mind and body, which act more in singularity with one another than they do as separate entities.
“Even though we treat our mind and bodies as two separate entities (brain vs. brawn; mind vs. matter), they are ultimately and intimately connected,” wrote Clayton Mosher for Scientific American.
The takeaway, then, as explained by the study’s authors, is more one of recognizing the interconnected nature of the body and the brain, which are merely two components of a single entity that requires the full function of both in order to manifest properly.
“The most impactful finding… is not the direct clinical application but the support that this work provides for us to better understand the critical importance of the brain in regulating muscle strength,” added Clark. “This information may fundamentally change how we think about muscle weakness in the elderly.”