ReBoot hero Tessa Guy believes you can. Tessa created In Mind In Body as a result of being diagnosed with cancer (another example of how good things come out of difficult experiences). She is a PE teacher and personal fitness trainer, in great shape: fit and healthy. The diagnosis came like a bolt out of the blue. She had surgery first, and then chemotherapy, and found that her normally boundless energy had deserted her entirely. She was too exhausted by the treatment to exercise.
The mind-body-fitness connection
Tessa came to the Haven for emotional support and a series of sessions of complementary therapies. She became aware, for the first time, of the effect her mind and her emotions had had on her health. Fascinated, because she hadn’t had an inkling about the power of the mind-body connection, she began to research the subject in depth. The result was ‘In Mind In Body’, a series of CDs and downloads that use imagery to create the same physiological effects in the body as real physical exercise. The research she found shows that you can focus your mind to bring about positive changes to your fitness.
Unlikely as it sounds, purely through thought and by activating your imagination, you can improve your physical fitness.
Do you honestly enjoy exercise? Do you resent the amount of time it takes up in your day? Or does the thought of a sweaty session on the treadmill fill you with dread? I struggle hugely with going to the gym. I just don’t like it and find it horribly boring. Tessa’s CDs sounded like the answer to my prayers.
Recovery and rehabilitation benefits
I went to meet Tessa for a green tea and a catch up. I came away inspired. Imagine the health benefits for bed bound patients, people in nursing homes or anyone recovering in hospital? Or to the elderly who find walking difficult and go out very little? Her approach could speed up recovery times and rehabilitation from long-term and limiting health conditions.
Exercise imagery, motor imagery, mental imagery and visualisation are concepts widely used in the sports arena to improve athletic performance. In the 1980s Denis Waitley worked with US Olympic athletes and had them run their races in their minds, as well as on the track. Read more about it here in this sports blog post. When the results were studied, the same neural pathways were lit, muscle fibres activated and endorphins released, in the same order of sequence, whether they were racing on the track or in their minds.
So, when we imagine exercising, the brain responds as if we’re exercising for real.
Impressive evidence on fitness recovery
Studies have been done involving stroke, Parkinson’s and spinal injury patients, all demonstrating that incorporating exercise imagery into a rehabilitation programme alongside physical therapy helps to improve motor function and increase recovery rates.
When we imagine moving, we regenerate and activate the cortical area of the brain associated with the movement.
It has now been proven that you can improve muscle strength through imagined movement. As your muscles are controlled by and connected to the brain, you can build and reinforce their strength, speed and efficiency simply by using exercise imagery. Studies involving little fingers, bicep muscles and quadriceps muscles all indicated, that when you imagine contracting your muscles you learn to activate more muscle fibres. Imagine lifting a heavier weight and your heart rate will increase proportionately.
In a study conducted by M Guillot at the University of Lyon, it was discovered that when participants were asked to imagine lifting a heavier weight, they activated more muscle fibres. Imagining lifting a heavier weight doesn’t just activate more muscle fibres. A 1993 study (Decety) showed that the heart rates of participants increased proportionately when they were asked to imagine lifting a heavier weight.)
Muscle atrophy is a common side effect of inactivity, causing additional health issues. Yet studies show that if we imagine working our immobilised muscles on a regular basis we can dramatically prevent or slow down these effects. Clarke, in 2014 at the University of Ohio immobilised people’s wrists over a 4 week period. The group who imagined flexing their wrists, 5 days a week, involving 4 sets of 13 contractions per day, halved their loss of muscle strength compared to those who did nothing.
When you are in a relaxed state, often initiated through deep breathing, you can tap into your subconscious mind. Spending time in this state makes you more open and receptive to new ways of thinking and learning and imagery can sink deeply into your subconscious mind, becoming an effective and powerful rehabilitation tool.
We are only just beginning to understand the life changing capabilities of the mind-body connection. Active imagery builds on these latest findings in neuroscience.
My imagined workout
I downloaded one of Tessa’s In Mind In Body recordings, settled myself comfortably on the floor and prepared to see if the content was really what it said on the package. Tessa’s voice was the first re-assuring thing. I often get irritated by the tone or pitch of the person guiding meditation or visualization exercises, and never manage to get to the end. Silly perhaps, but it’s hard to zone out when your mind is making comments about the orator inside your head. No problem with that here, she is calm and clear and I was gripped by the information she offers in the introduction. Solid scientific facts and examples that inspire you to give it a go.
I worked through about 8 of the exercises, from knee lifts to squats, and all in my head. It’s quite hard initially to follow her voice, and to visualise properly at the same time, separating your mind from your body and commanding your mind to do the exercises as instructed, as well as breathing correctly. Tessa assured me this happened to everyone at the beginning, and that after a few sessions, the brain just sorts it all out and it happens naturally.
It was an easy technique to master and would be invaluable, I would have thought, for anyone too ill to exercise. For me, even though I am perfectly healthy at present, I would much rather exercise in my head than in the gym! If, as it seems, seeing, feeling and hearing yourself doing the sequences gives you the real physical and psychological benefits of exercise I will be continuing.
Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, who founded one of the UK's largest breast cancer charities, The Haven, twenty years ago. With Reboot Health, Sara aims to bring the best preventative and curative health solutions ranging from nutrition, alternative therapies, fitness and conventional medicine.