Friday, November 9, 2007

Can Imaginary Exercise Make You Fit?

Imaginary workouts can build strength and fuel weight loss

By Jonathan Fields

Breakthrough research in the field of exercise physiology has yielded stunning revelations about the way we get fit. The big surprise, though, is not what we “have” to do, but what we might “not” have to do.

Our thoughts can literally redefine the size, shape and strength of our bodies.

For decades, exercise scientists have worked to discover how we get fit. Getting stronger, we were told, was about creating enough resistance in a muscle to create millions of micro-tears that would, over days, weeks and months, rebuild themselves, bigger, leaner and stronger. So when we lift weights, sprint or engage in pretty much any kind of exercise, we set this whole process in motion.

The entire cycle is known as hypertrophy and it’s always been considered a pretty mechanical experience. Weight loss has been tossed off with similar assumptions. Regardless of he method used for short-term weight loss, sustained loss always comes back to calories in and calories out.

Nothing foofy, just hard work. Thus, the famed old coach’s chant, “no pain, no gain!” But, what if we could make a change to that slogan?

No pain…huge gains.

It seems there may be a giant kink in this system. And, it has to do with the brain’s role in whole process.

Mind Over Muscles

Building muscle, it turns out, is not nearly as mechanical as we thought. And, in fact, a recent study by Erin M. Shackell and Lionel G. Standing at Bishop’s University reveals you may be able to make nearly identical gains in strength and fitness without lifting a finger!

That study measured the strength gains in three different groups of people. The first group did nothing outside their usual routine. The second group was put through two weeks of highly focused strength training for one specific muscle, three times a week. The third group listened to audio CDs that guided them to imagine themselves going through the same workout as the exercising group, three times a week.

And, the results blew everyone away.

The control group, who didn’t do anything, saw no gains in strength. The exercise group, who trained three times a week, saw a 28% gain in strength. No big surprises there. But, the group who did not exercise, but rather thought about exercising experienced nearly the same gains in strength as the exercise group (24%). Yes, you read that right!

The group that visualized exercised got nearly the same benefit, in terms of strength-gains, as the group that actually worked-out.

All of which leaves us with two big questions:

  • How in the word did this work? And,
  • Does this mean I can really get totally buff without ever working out?

Question 1 – How can your brain make you buff?

Okay, the answer to the first question—how does this work—is…we don’t really know, with certainty. We do know, however, that muscle conditioning and, in fact, all aspects of fitness and performance, are not nearly as purely mechanical as we once thought.

Your mind plays a massive role in at least two distinct ways

Through it’s connection to the endocrine system (the body’s chemical plant), different thoughts and mental states release hormones that can dramatically accelerate or retard muscle growth. In fact, some people, in search of a way to speed the process, ingest or inject extra amounts of these or similar chemicals. We all know what these are—steroids and their various derivatives. Not the smartest choice.

Other chemicals work on different organs to either fire-up or slow-down your metabolism in the blink of an eye, causing your to either burn a ton of calories lightning-fast or nose-dive into a slow burn.

In fact, a Harvard study reported in February 2007 further bolstered the impact of your thoughts on calories burned.

In that study, the housekeeping staff in a major hotel were told that what they did on a daily basis qualified as the amount of exercise needed to be fit and healthy. They made no changes in behavior, just kept on doing their job. Same as always.

Four weeks later, those housekeepers had lost weight, lowered blood pressure, body-fat percentage, waist-hip ratio and BMI. A similar group of housekeepers who had not been led to believe their job qualified as exercise saw none of these changes.

Simply believing their jobs were exercise caused their bodies to change. Unreal!

But, there’s something beyond the link between thoughts and chemistry, when it comes to the specific quest to gain strength. Chemistry may help accelerate the growth of muscle, but, it turns out…

…strength may not be nearly as much about muscle size or hypertrophy as we thought.

In addition to its chemical system, your body has at least one major electrical system—the nervous system. The signal that makes a muscle contract begins as an electrical impulse in your brain. That impulse is transmitted through your body’s electrical circuitry or nerves to your muscle.

How efficiently that impulse is delivered and how receptive your muscle is to that impulse determines, in large part, how forcefully that muscle can contract. The more fully and the faster it contracts, the stronger we say it is. We call this process neuromuscular facilitation.

Now, here’s the rub. You can turbo-charge your body’s electrical impulse system by repeatedly “visualizing” a muscle contracting, without ever actually contracting it. Based on this knowledge, we’ve known, for years, that visualization is a great way to slow down the loss of strength during recovery from an injury.

But, the big news is that simply visualizing an exercise may provide a nearly equivalent strength-building benefit as actually working-out.

More studies will go along way toward confirming this. And, if it’s for real, wow, can you imagine the opportunities. Now, what about that second question…

Question 2 - Does this mean I really can get totally buff without ever working out?

The short answer is—probably not…yet! Exercise, gains in muscle size and weight loss are all extremely complex processes. There is a ton going on all at once, which is why almost every study done on exercise is causative, not correlative.

It’s much easier to say weight loss and strength gains are “correlated” with exercise, than to say they are “caused” by exercise. Because, it’s nearly impossible to isolate what elements of exercise or “thinking about” exercise are doing what.

So, for now, a really well conceived “visualized” workout may yield similar gains in strength. But, we are not yet able to say it is possible to think your way thin or think your muscles bigger. The key phrase in that sentence, though, was “for now.”

I am incredibly excited about the potential of highly-efficient, virtualized workouts in the near future.

Applications include everything from accelerating rehab to slowing disease-related muscle degeneration, and, yes, even delivering the ultimate, sweat-free, lazy-man/woman’s workout.

A final word of caution, though. Exercise, actual body-moving, sweat-drenching, joint-freeing breath and movement are not only mission-critical to keeping your joints, muscles and connective tissue healthy, but, when chosen with the right criteria, can actually be a source of a lifetime of fun. And…

…if fun and exercise don’t sound like they belong in the same sentence together, hold onto your hat!

This article is just the first in what will soon grow into an ongoing series on creating, choosing and enacting an approach to exercise that is so fun and effective, it’ll have you reworking your calendar to find ways to exercise more.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Ultimate Visualization Exercise

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