Good news for those of us who didn’t make it to the gym this morning: science says just thinking about exercise is enough to strengthen your muscles. It seems too good to be true, but several research projects have confirmed this theory.
In one study performed by Dr. Brian Clark and associates published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, subjects’ wrists were fixed so they could not move for four weeks to induce muscle loss. Half of these participants were asked to vividly imagine strong contractions of the wrist muscles for five days a week during the four-week period. The other half of the subjects did not perform this exercise. At the end of the study, the amount of muscle lost was measured. The group that performed these mental activities lost 50% less muscle than the group that did not. So, imaginary exercise can prevent muscle loss—but can it cause actual muscle gain?
Research completed by Dr. Guang Yue and colleagues confirmed that it can. In this study, one group of subjects was trained to perform “mental contractions” of the pinky finger muscles and one group performed actual physical contractions of these muscles. The participants completed these exercises for fifteen minutes, five days per week for twelve weeks. The results of the experiment indicated that those who performed the physical contractions increased strength of the little finger muscles by 53%. Those who performed the mental contractions increased strength by 35%–less than a 20% difference than the actual exercise.
The results of these experiments suggest that there are two components to strength building: the actual physical contraction of muscles and the signals from the brain that stimulate muscle growth. These findings have significant and exciting applications to a variety of activities. Physical therapy frequently takes advantage of this phenomenon. Patients who have lost the ability to move a part of their body can perform these imaginary exercises to maintain a degree of muscle strength despite disuse. This principle can also be applied to get more out of your everyday workout. By practicing mindful exercise and actively thinking about a muscle while working it, you can make your workout doubly effective.
So, while simply thinking of exercise may not have effects of the same magnitude as actual physical exercise, the effects are still significant. This may not be an effective training routine to seriously buff up—but if you’re content with a 35% increase in strength, don’t feel too guilty about skipping the gym today. You can just lay in bed and think about exercise from now on.