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Chances are that you’ve done it before: envisioned yourself in a new office before a job interview or practiced your Maid of Honor speech while picturing a happy, laughing crowd.
Imagining yourself successful may have gotten you your dream job or won over the guests at the reception, but there’s more to it: using this technique, often referred to in sports psychology as visualization, can also help you attain the fit, healthy body you’ve always dreamed of.
Visualization is a kind of mental rehearsal for something that you want to attain in the physical sense, says University of South Carolina sports psychology professor Eva Monsma, PhD. If you see yourself kicking butt, your chances of making that a reality are greater.
Here’s how to achieve four health and fitness goals by tapping into your imagination.
Goal #1: Imagine Yourself Fit and Successful
Visualizing yourself fit is an important step in becoming fit, says Kay Porter, PhD, a sports psychology counselor from Eugene, Oregon. To make it work, you need to focus on two things: envisioning an image of your physical self as looking fit and strong (as if seeing yourself on a screen), and imagining what it would actually feel like to have that body. “Visualization is much more powerful if you have a feeling to go along with a visual image,” she says. Here’s how to do it:
- Start by focusing on one body part that you’d like to make over, like your abs. Stand in front of a mirror and imagine yourself with a toned, tight core. Picture how comfortably your jeans fit or how confident you feel in a form-fitting dress. See yourself rocking it!
- Now, imagine how those abs feel. Take it to the physical level. What does it feel like to run your hand over your belly and feel a strong, hard and tight midsection? Imagine yourself contracting your new abs and feeling your entire core respond. Feel your muscles working.
- Next, imagine going to the gym with those abs. What does it feel like to be able to hold a plank for a full minute, or complete that tough core workout that you had trouble with before? Think about the great feeling you will have once you have succeeded.
- Visualize how the circumstances of life may change (for the better), says Toronto-based clinical psychologist Stephanie Bot, PsyD. Imagine how much more empowered you will feel when you achieve your goal. How will you act? How will you improve your life?
Goal #2: Improve Your Performance in the Gym
You can use visualization at the gym to build strength and confidence, says Sandra Short, PhD, professor of exercise science at the University of North Dakota. Her research with college athletes in the weight room has shown that imagery is very effective at building self-assurance and motivation. Here’s how to boost your workouts with visualization:
- Imagine that you are rocking your workouts, even when you are not actually exercising. “When you are imagining moving a muscle, your motor neurons are firing the same way as if you were physically doing it,” says Short. We know from research on people with prosthetic limbs that just imagining movement can create the perception of movement, so set aside five to 10 minutes a day, three to five days a week, and imagine a few exercises, such as biceps curls, lunges and dips. Feel your muscles working.
- See your muscles grow and strengthen. “If you focus on the muscle, it will respond better,” says Bot, so close your eyes and feel your muscles working and contracting. Visualize the muscles growing, almost like an animated movie.
- While stretching, imagine your muscles rebuilding, such as picturing little construction workers doing repairs on the muscles. See them responding, rebuilding and strengthening.
Bonus Tip: Imagine how good you will feel after you complete your workout. Create a proud feeling in your mind and use it as fuel.
Goal #3: Win a Race or Competition
Whether you’re training for a 5K, taking on a full marathon or stepping on stage in a fitness competition, using visualization can help you reach your full potential. The thing you most need to remember? Competition imagery should always be positive, says Monsma. “Make sure you are in control of the image.” Here’s how to do well as you compete:
- Imagine the celebration at the end of your race or competition: the sights, sounds and smells of the crowd as you cross the finish line, and how the medal looks and feels hanging around your neck. Take time to imagine this each day leading up to the big event or race and envision yourself being a winner.
- If, during the course of visualization, your mind wanders and imagines something going wrong, like missing a key move at a fitness competition, freeze the action in your mind, rewind and then replay it so that it is perfect, says Monsma.
- Imagine the specific portions of the race that you know will be tough spots (like the half-way point or the bottom of a hill) and imagine pushing yourself through. “That way, by the time you get around to race day, it’s as if you’ve already done it and you’ve pushed yourself through the hard part, which helps you gain confidence,” says Monsma.
Goal #4: Recover After an Injury
“We can absolutely affect the healing in our bodies,” says Porter, who has worked with injured athletes and helped them get back to their sport. Here is how you can use visualization when you are injured or trying to overcome another type of fitness setback:
- Visualize your injury healing. Porter once worked with a client who had a stress fracture. The client had actually seen the tiny break on the X-ray, and it bothered her. “Once a day, I had her visualize the white matter of the bone filling in the break, until it was strong and almost like superglue,” Porter says. Picture a broken bone being glued back together or a torn muscle being woven back into perfect shape, as if sewn together by a needle and thread.
- See yourself back in it. Imagine your first day back at the gym: What will that feel like? Which exercises are you going to perform? Run through the experience in your head.
- Mentally rehearse your workouts, even when you can’t perform them.
The Science of Visualization
The idea that imagining something can make it come true is not just the stuff of fairytales. Neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying visualization for years and have discovered that when you imagine something in your brain, it sends signals to your muscles, which can actually have the same effect as physically working the muscles. “By just thinking it, you are enervating the muscles the same way you would if you were physically doing it,” says Sandra Short, PhD, professor of exercise science at the University of North Dakota. So, if you can see it – and feel it – in your mind, you can do it!
Tip: Engage all your senses. What does success look like, feel like, sound like, smell like and taste like? Own it.
Set Your Goals
You can improve your training sessions by incorporating the principles of visualization. All it takes is clearly focusing on your goals. By purposefully imagining what you’re after – whether it be a specific outcome (a six-pack!), a perfectly formed skill or overcoming an obstacle, you can prepare your body and mind for it and, ultimately, achieve it. Keep your goals in mind every time you hit the gym for a workout, and imagine yourself already being successful. It will go a long way!