We’re all on our own fitness journey in one way or another, and discovering the motivational tactics that work best for you is crucial to reaching any target, be it mental or physical.
However, because the body and appearance is what we take in visually when discussing fitness, we therefore assume it’s the physical that dictates entirely how we look—but alas, such may not be the case.
That’s because scientists have discovered merely thinking about exercise and getting in shape can be a tremendous boost to reaching your targets, and elite athletes the world over are employing these methods to develop themselves into higher beings.
It turns out neuroscience could be the latest and greatest route to chiseled features and washboard abs if one dedicates themselves to the cause.
Mental Exercises Equal to Physical Counterparts
Dr. Michael Mosley conducted research for BBC 2 programme Trust Me, I’m a Doctor earlier this year, and the fruits of his labour is a technique called mental imagery—also known as motor imagery.
To test out the theory seven volunteers were given a mental exercise to do five days a week, and the results were genuinely put to the limit, due to the fact some of those in the sample couldn’t even exercise physically due to health issues.
The seven subjects were tested for calf strength, muscle and mass at the beginning of the experiment by pushing against a machine. The mental exercise then involved said volunteers thinking about that same muscle contracting 50 times for 15 minutes, five days a week, as a form of brain stimulation.
Read on to find out what the results of the test were (disclaimer: they’re astonishing).
After a month of performing said mental exercises, the subjects were then put back under the machine’s test for real and reported back with an average improvement of 8% in muscle strength and mass. Of the results, Mosley said:
It’s an extraordinary result. The measurements showed it wasn’t due to muscles growing bigger, so it wasn’t to do with a change in the amount of muscle. The electrical stimulation test gave the answer. These results showed by the end of the month of thinking, our volunteers were using more of the muscle fibres they had always had.
One woman in the test sample even improved her results by as much as 33%, showing just how prevalent the mind-muscle connection is in terms of physical results.
Believe, and you will achieve, more or less.
Motivation is Key
So, those test subjects improved merely thanks to envisioning the same exercise and becoming more mentally accustomed to its sensation and form, but what else can we do via brainwaves to improve results?
According to John Salamone, Ph.D., head of the Behavioral Neuroscience Division at the University of Connecticut, a portion of the brain called the nucleus accumbens could be crucial, as it’s responsible for the release of dopamine.
The neurotransmitter dopamine triggers motivation in the brain when released into the system, meaning tasks like getting up early, staying on track with diet and blasting out the fifth set of a 5×5 seem all the more realistic.
Per Shape.com, Salamone said of the chemical reaction:
“Dopamine helps bridge what scientists call psychological distance. Say you’re sitting at home on your couch in your pajamas, thinking you really should exercise, for example. Dopamine is what enables you to make the decision to be active.”
So, the more dopamine, the better, right? Exactly, except it’s not that simple to encourage.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter at work when your brain (and body) realises it’s done something it enjoys. So, if you’ve just teamed up with a new training partner and enjoyed the best workout of your life, you’ll want to do it again—but the brain then grows to expect that same “high” every time.
Anyone who’s been active in the gym long enough will know it’s simply not realistic to expect every workout to be a breeze, and there will be days where getting under the bar is simply not what you want to do.
This is where difficulty comes in, meaning it’s up to you to turn up the intensity and ensure you’re getting the same satisfaction from a good workout. And there are those people who just aren’t willing to even attempt finding their “happy place” in the gym, for whom there may be little hope.
Build Trends Before Goals
For all the good work that motivation and will power do in regards to fitness, there are down sides to it all, related mostly to the fact that both those critical resources eventually run dry for any normal human being.
Yo-yo dieting is perhaps one of the most common curses in any household, with men and women the world over experience a good patch of weight loss or muscle gain before eventually heading back in the other direction—sometimes twice as fast, and twice as bad.
Sandra Aamodt is a neuroscientist who spoke at a Spotlight Health conference in June of this year, who detailed the area of the brain responsible for will power is not an everlasting well of motivation:
“This is the area of the brain that you tend to think of as your secret weapon for weight loss. Your secret weapon for weight loss takes a lot of vacations. And guess what? It’s impaired when you’re hungry. The basic answer to why people have so much trouble with dieting is they’re trying to use a system that tires easily to fight against brain systems that are always working, never take a day off.”
It’s become commonplace in the 21st century to hear the phrase that “diets are bad,” largely due to the fact the very notion of a diet suggests you’re doing something temporary for what you hope to be a permanent result. The concept of a yo-yo diet means eventual binge-eating is almost inevitable—take it from one who yo-yoed with the best of them.
It’s easier to spot the madness in that theory now, right?
Instead, Aamodt dictates that building healthy habits is the way to a more enjoyable life—notice we say “life,” and not just “summer in Cabo”—and those include “regular exercise, not smoking, moderate drinking, and eating at least five fruits and vegetables every day.”
You’ve known about them since you were a child, but for some reason, we’re all too eager to shun these ideals for preference of quick fixes and fad diets, when really, consistency is the only thing we all knew we’ve needed this whole time.