Can you ‘imagine’ your muscles into recovery?

Mental imagery is the process of visualization, where the mind experiences something without external stimuli. In more general terms, mental imagery is imagining doing something…

Can mental exercise prevent unused muscles from getting weaker? (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)

Mental imagery is the process of visualization, where the mind experiences something without external stimuli. In more general terms, mental imagery is imagining doing something when you can’t actually do it, and though it is a great way to relax and relive past experiences, it can also be a way to condition your body when physical movement isn’t an option.

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According to researchers from the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, patients who are unable to use their muscles for extended periods of time–such as after recovery from a stroke–may be able to maintain the strength and integrity of those muscles through mental imagery of exercise.

The concept is not a new one; often referred to as sports imagery, mental imagery to improve physical function has been used by athletes for decades. Psychology Today’s Jim Taylor, Ph.D., indicates mental imagery isn’t just an experience that occurs in your head, but rather impacts the person in every way: psychologically, emotionally, physically, technically, and tactically. He considers it “weight lifting for the mind.”

“In my more than 25 years of work with professional, Olympic, collegiate, and junior-elite athletes, mental imagery is the tool that I emphasize the most with them and the one that I have seen have the greatest impact on their performances,” he said. “Here’s the bottom line. If you aren’t engaged in a consistent mental imagery program, you’re not doing everything you can to achieve your athletic goals.”

Taylor isn’t the only health care professional to believe in the power of mental imagery, and existing research supports its use, though the exact connection between the brain and muscle strength has remained mysterious. It is that connection that prompted Ohio University  researchers to investigate if mental imagery could be just as useful in the rehabilitation process of people at risk for muscle trauma or deterioration.

“We wanted to tease out the underlying physiology between the nervous system and muscles to better understand the brain’s role in muscle weakness,” Prof. Brian Clark, study author and director of the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute, told MNT.

Examining two groups of individuals with induced wrist/hand muscle weakness alongside a control group, experts found the group that performed mental imagery of strong muscle contractions 5 days per week had significantly lower levels of muscle loss compared to the group not performing mental imagery exercises.

“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,” wrote the authors. “The most impactful finding, however, 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. This information may fundamentally change how we think about muscle weakness in the elderly.”

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Muscle weakness is common as people enter their older years, a phenomenon known as sarcopenia. The condition can appear at around age 40 worsening after age 75, is a major cause of disability in the elderly. Up until this point, there have been no successful treatments for sarcopenia aside from regular exercise, which can be difficult for many older individuals.