Exercise imagery: Imaging your exercise goals and plans can boost your motivation and enjoyment of physical activity

By Maria-Christina Kosteli

  • Do you have a yearly gym subscription but have only managed to get to the gym once or twice this year?
  • Do you keep promising yourself that you will exercise more but never seem to get around to it?

Well, you are not alone. In fact, the older you get the less active you become and this is a phenomenon that has been reported worldwide.

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So why do we not exercise?

A renowned psychologist, Professor Albert Bandura, explained why we tend to avoid exercise as we age with his Social-Cognitive theory.  This theory suggests that the way we think (our cognitions) along with other societal factors influence our ability to be physically active.

For example, we might be lacking self-confidence in our ability to exercise or perceive many barriers that stop us from exercising.  It could also be a combination of both of these reasons.

A common barrier is bad weather.  For many, the weather may stop us from going to the park to walk but it could also come from a belief that we are not able to successfully exercise in the rain. After all who likes the weather in the UK?

Another barrier comes when we do not expect that exercise is going to make a significant and positive difference to our lives. You might have thought: “What’s the point to exercise? It does not work for me”.

Well, these negative beliefs are enough to reduce your effort and discourage you from setting exercise goals and plans. As a result it is very unlikely you are going to enjoy exercise once you get to it.

How can we find motivation to exercise?

Well, one way of becoming more physically active is to convince your brain you are exercising without actually doing it. How is this possible? By using imagery, also known as visualisation.

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Imagery is a popular mental technique used by many exercisers to motivate themselves to get out of the house and start working out. By imagining yourself performing the exercises in an aerobics class and experiencing positive psychological outcomes can make you more confident in your ability to compete the workout.

What should we image?

Our recent research (Kosteli, Cumming, &Williams, 2017) showed that self-regulatory imagery can have a positive impact on physical activity engagement.  This type of imagery includes imaging your plans and goals.

For example:

  • Keeping to a schedule
  • The planning, engagement, and achievement of exercise plans and goals
  • The plans and goals themselves and the feeling of motivation as a result of them

In our study, middle-aged and older adults who used images of plans and goals (i.e., self-regulatory imagery) were found to be more confident in their ability to engage in physical activity and were also more likely to perceive more positive outcome expectations (e.g., better health) and less barriers (e.g., bad weather), as well as they enjoyed physical activity more.

How does self-regulatory imagery work?

By imaging your exercise goals, such as getting fitter, can act as a reminder of how satisfying it is to set and achieve this goal, and can motivate you to put more effort to exercise. Self-regulatory imagery not only helps you to set more plans and goals but also to enjoy exercise more. Overall, self-regulatory imagery can influence how we think and feel about physical activity, which makes it a powerful tool that can be used by any of us at any point in time. If you are still unsure if you can achieve your exercise goals you only have to imagine you are successfully achieving these goals and this is going to persuade your brain you are able to do it.

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Getting to know the BRIO group: Nurwina Anuar

What led you to imagery as a research area?

I started to notice that imagery came in my life since I was young. Unconsciously, I did a lot of imagery in my daily life. I think it is a good practice, up until today, I plan in mind what I have to do tomorrow, what colour of shirt for tomorrow, I what shoes I have to wear, what meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I do it daily and weekly. I could say, if I don`t do it, my next day will be empty, and chaos. So this is where I caught my interest to learn why this is happened and what is the scientific reason behind it.

Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to further my study in this area as this is still a developing area in my home country of Malaysia. I did not know what course I should apply because it was difficult to explain to my family and institution about my interest. I can say it was very challenging to do bachelor study in course that was not my interest. You can probably see how I like imagery so much and I believe imagery play a big role in my life especially in planning and preparation in everything I do.

The story begins when one of a university in my home country employed me being an academic and this position lead me to further my study for master and PhD. Again, I proposed to do a research at least related to imagery. It was very limited resources, expertise and I could say it is difficult for me to find anybody that can supervise me in this research. Two years in my master research was very challenging. Being a staff and student at the same time at the university, I really have to emphasize and really have to prove that this technique is good and really can be used for future research and application.

With little knowledge about imagery in hand, I saw an opportunity to further PhD in imagery in sport. I did not think any longer and sent an email if there is any chance for me to further study, I was putting hope so much as I did not have a good background about imagery and sports. I am lucky and really have to thanks Dr. Jennifer Cumming and Dr. Sarah Williams for the opportunity, sharing, teaching, and everything they do for me up until today. Then, here I am, a PhD student of imagery in sport, University of Birmingham, working with 2 amazing and well know people in imagery, together with the fabulous BRIO group. I hope I can bring this technique to my home country and tell the world, hey, this is a great technique and you must have to do it effectively!

Getting to know the BRIO group: How do you use imagery?

Dr Jennifer Cumming

My dad first introduced me to imagery when I was a young ice skater to help me prepare for tests and competition.  He encouraged me to go through my routine in my head the night before, and it used to make me ready for the next day.  I could always hear my music in my mind’s ear and image performing the different moves. My images were always from a 3rd person perspective, as if watching myself  on video playback, but with a strong kinesthetic sensation.  I was later surprised to learn as an undergdraute student that imagery was “supposed” to be done from an internal (1st person) perspective. Research has since corrected this misconception and we now know a lot more about visual imagery perspective. But, at the time, my experience of using imagery was not reflected well in the text books I was reading.

I now use imagery extensively for work, fitness, and everyday life.  The most common function of my imagery is self-regulation; i.e., goal-setting and planing.  Just the other day, I was out running along a lovely path in my local park, and used imagery to plan the route I wanted to take and preview how I would achieve mini goals along the way.  When it is my turn to cook, I similarly use this kind of planning imagery to work out a new recipe and figure out the steps needed to get the meal on the table for my family.

Dr Sarah Williams

I use imagery for pretty much everything I do. I started using it primarily for sport but when I learnt more about imagery I realised I used it for many more things without knowing it. I use it to help with how to perform skills or tasks. Imagery also helps enhance my confidence and motivation, maintain my focus, and keeps me feeling positive about upcoming situations I may be apprehensive about. I guess I use imagery to prepare for, implement, and reflect on all activities in my life. I use it at work (e.g., deciding how to deliver certain content in my teaching), I use it for playing sport (e.g., imagine the positive feelings and emotions associated with playing when I am feeling unmotivated to go to training), I even use it when lying in bed before I go to sleep (e.g., reliving certain events of the day or anticipating upcoming events the next day). Essentially imagery is my cheat sheet in life.

Fredrik Weibull, 4th year PhD student

I use imagery in different situations and for different purposes. I use it if I want to make changes in my behavior or reach a specific emotional state. I for example use it before giving a presentation in order to affect my emotional state and direct my focus. I also use imagery in sport, for example before hitting a golf shot to direct my focus and increase my self-efficacy. I image hitting the shot, how it feels in my body and the flight of the ball.

Maria-Christina Kostelli, 3rd year PhD student

I use imagery in everyday life. Whenever I want to deal with a difficult situation I visualize myself ahead of time overcoming the barrier. For example, when it comes to public speaking I get a bit nervous. Imagery helps me prepare for the situation by seeing myself in front of the audience delivering the presentation and experiencing positive feelings. I also use imagery to motivate myself do something. I usually visualize of the reward and I create positive expectations. I can picture myself getting through the PhD Viva and feeling relieved. Sometimes I use imagery to simply relax. I can picture myself in a nice setting (beach) and I feel calm and relaxed. Since my research topic is on exercise imagery, I try to apply imagery to motivate myself exercise. I usually picture myself leaner and fitter. This makes me want to be more physically active.

Mary Quinton, 3rd year PhD student

I’m a keen (field) hockey player so I use imagery a lot in competitive matches, mainly for motivational purposes. However, the more I think about this question the more I realize that I use imagery a lot in my day to day life! From my walk into university and planning out my tasks for the day, right up to what I’m going to have for dinner!

In the Mind’s Eye: Imagery resources for the classroom

We made a short 25 minute lecture on sport imagery for secondary school students and teachers.

Video lecture

To watch the video, click here: http://www.download.bham.ac.uk/studyhere/presenter/sportexlecture1/index.htm

Resources directly related to the lecture:

  1. Notes for teachers (PDF 46Kb)
  2. Lecture outline_student handout (PDF 64Kb)
  3. Analysing ‘Learning’ element of PETTLEP model (student worksheet) (PDF 20Kb)
  4. Analysing ‘Learning’ element of PETTLEP model (answers for teachers) (PDF 30Kb)

Additional Worksheet and Classroom Activities:

  1. Point to consider when imaging (student handout) (PDF 28Kb)
  2. Exploring Your Imagery (student worksheet) (PDF 28Kb)
  3. Improving Your Imagery (student worksheet) (PDF 31Kb)
  4. Classroom exercise 1 (PDF 32Kb)
  5. Classroom exercise 2 (PDF 47Kb)

Getting to know the BRIO group: What led you to imagery as a research area?

Dr Jennifer Cumming

I became interested in sport psychology as a career path after spending summers as a competitive ice skater involved in an intensive summer school in Montreal, Canada.  At the time, I training 30-40 hours/week, mainly on-ice, but I also had the opportunity to take dance and sport psychology classes.  It was my first exposure to working with a sport psychologist and I really enjoyed writing down daily goals and completing the workbook that was provided (I still have it!).  I had been using imagery to preview my performances since the age of 8 or 9, but I started to refine my imagery during this training and became interested in how I could help other skaters benefit from using it.

This experience eventually led me to do a BSc in Fitness Education (now called Kinesiology) at McGill University, a programme that allowed me the flexibility to take classes from both the Psychology as well as Physical Education departments.  I still remember learning the basics of motor control and sport psychology from great professors, like the late Dr Dan Marisi, which gave me a strong grounding for do a Masters with Dr Diane Ste-Marie at the University of Ottawa and then a PhD with Dr Craig Hall at the Western Ontario. I have always been grateful to the excellent training and opportunities I received from these supervisors, which has led me to a position at the University of Birmingham and over 15 years of imagery research. I now have the pleasure of co-running the BRIO group with Dr Sarah Williams and working with an excellent group of students, both past and present.

Dr Sarah Williams

I was always really interested in sport psychology from my own participation in sport. I first learnt about imagery during my A levels although it was branded as “mental rehearsal”. I had experienced first-hand how beneficial it could be so I became really excited when I found out that it was an official “thing” that could be used and studied. When I got to university I discovered that imagery can be used for things beyond improving movements, skills, and strategies. This unlocked a new word for me in terms of not only how I could use imagery, but also the different research questions that remained unanswered. It was then I started asking myself whether imagery could do this or do that, and whether anyone had tested these ideas. I started trying to use imagery in different ways when playing sport and thought about how this may or may not have worked – some might have called me a self-experimenter.

I then completed my undergraduate dissertation and gained my first bit of “real” imagery research. This is definitely when my love affair with imagery intensified. I loved everything about the research process and at the end I had more research questions than when I had started (I’ve since come to realise that this usually happens after every study you conduct!). I then applied for a PhD to continue answering these research questions and was fortunate enough to be awarded the studentship. The rest as they say is history!

Fredrik Weibull, 4th year PhD student

I was fascinated by imagery and I used it in my tennis. As an undergrad at the university I focused on imagery as a research topic and since then I have been really hooked.

Maria Kostelli, 3rd year PhD student

The first time I heard about imagery was during my Master’s as a mental skill for student-athletes. I got more interested in imagery when I saw athletes using it in their everyday practice. The majority of athletes shared their experience with me and persuaded me that imagery is an acquired skill that helps them overcome their fear of failing and at the same time helps them get better. I find imagery a very stimulating topic. I like the fact that imagery can be applied in every aspect of our lives. It is a good strategy and technique that can be used to help people improve in every sector of life. It can be used as a performance enhancement technique, to overcome a phobia, to recover faster from an injury, to motivate yourself do something that you are having a hard time doing and so on.

Mary Quinton, 3rd year PhD student

I first became interested in imagery when Jenn introduced it to me as a second year undergraduate student in our sport psychology module. This led me to choosing to study imagery in my final year dissertation. After reading more literature and conducting an imagery intervention with young futsal players, I decided that I wanted to pursue imagery research further, which led me to where I am right now – in the final year of my PhD!

Gale, 2nd year PhD student

I have been passionate about imagery since working with stroke patients as a physiotherapist. A after I have studied imagery in my MSc degree course I have came across imagery’s whole distinct concept and advantages that could be applied in rehabilitation field. Since then I have decided to do continue my PhD degree into exploring the full depth and dimensions of imagery and how beneficial it can be in my area of physiotherapy rehabilitation.

BRIO imagery workshop: Reflections on applied practice

Many sport and exercise psychology students learn in the classroom about the potential uses and benefits of imagery, and the underpinning theory and evidence. I wonder if other students-turned-practitioners can resonate with my experience that actually putting theory into practice in the applied field is a whole different ball game! What about athletes who can’t control their image or who indicate that they “can’t ‘do’ imagery” at all? How should imagery scripts come together: What content, wording, format, timing, is best? These practical challenges of using imagery with clients are not necessarily covered in training or textbooks; yet are situations and questions that I have encountered or pondered over as an early career sport psychology practitioner.

Last September I went back to the University of Birmingham (where I studied my undergraduate degree) to attend an imagery workshop run by the BRIO group. Aside from checking out if Joe’s (the student bar) still looked the same, I was keen to learn about current imagery research and its applied implications from field leaders. The workshop promised an applied focus and did not disappoint, with practical tasks and discussions throughout the day. I left feeling inspired and equipped with knowledge and tools that addressed my afore-mentioned practitioner challenges; and that would ultimately enhance my consultancy work. I hope to share a few personal reflections on my key learning points, accompanied by applied examples.

Reflection 1: Piecing imagery together gradually, incorporating the scenario as well as the athlete’s responses

One main focus of the workshop was using layered stimulus response training, or LSRT. This approach advocates building the complexity of an image gradually with clients, by starting with a simple image and progressively adding ‘layers’ (or details). These layers should include characteristics about the imaged scenario (e.g., the race start line), as well as the athlete’s sensory response (e.g., quickened heart beat) and the meaning this holds for them (e.g., feeling prepared and energised).

I have found the step-by-step approach of LSRT and its emphasis on ‘starting simple’ extremely helpful with athletes who doubt their imagery ability. Through a cycle of ‘image, reflect, develop’, athletes can continually evaluate and build the vividness and controllability of their imagery. I have also had success using LSRT with athletes who fear the situation they are trying to image; that is, when the purpose of imagery is to reduce anxiety and develop confidence. For instance, I worked with an equestrian rider who feared jumping certain fences. At first, this rider could not contemplate mentally jumping the feared fence from a first person perspective (through the ‘rider’s eyes’), which evoked unhelpful responses including thoughts (e.g., “That looks big”), emotions (e.g., scared) and physiological reactions (e.g., freeze). Through progressive steps of using imagery to first experience jumping easier fences and then harder fences (initially in third person perspective, followed by first person perspective), this rider was eventually able to mentally experience jumping harder fences comfortably; and crucially, to physically jump these fences on her horse. The ‘response’ and ‘meaning’ elements of the imagery were important to monitor and regulate here, in order to dispute the rider’s unhelpful thoughts about harder fences, and create more helpful responses/meanings to the harder fences in her imagery.

Reflection 2: Broadening the ‘Why’ of imagery – a tool for self-awareness?

The workshop covered five ‘W’s of imagery, which should all be considered when working with athletes: ‘Who’, ‘When’, ‘Where’, and ‘Why’, which informs the ‘What’. Prior to the workshop, I had used imagery largely as a tool to improve confidence, focus, and skill acquisition. More recently, using a LSRT approach I have been amazed by the capacity of imagery to develop athletes’ self-awareness. One session that stands out was working with a darts player to uncover the differences in thoughts, focus, emotions, and physiology when he took shots he was most comfortable with (his favourite numbers) versus least comfortable (shots he avoided). By progressively building detailed imagery examples of both scenarios, it dawned on the player that he focused on the whole number when taking ‘uncomfortable’ shots, yet on a tiny dot when taking ‘comfortable’ shots. Astonishingly, this difference was something the player had been unaware of in ten years of competing; and this awareness helped us to develop an intervention. Increasingly, I am using structured imagery (rather than solely asking athletes to recall performances) in my practice, to develop a richer self-awareness within the client and to get a clearer picture of presenting issues as a practitioner.

Reflection 3: Broadening the ‘hoW’ of imagery – fully involving the athlete

The sixth ‘W’ discussed in the workshop was the ‘hoW’ of imagery, for instance the different senses that are experienced (e.g., visual, tactile), the perspective (e.g., first or third person), angle (e.g., in front, behind), and agency (e.g., self, other) of the image, and whether the imagery is deliberate. These considerations were an eye-opener for me: Images can be vastly different, yet still effective. I now encourage athletes to initially vary their ‘hoW’, for instance experiment with different perspectives and angles. In my experience, this can help to improve imagery detail and also athlete self-awareness, such that the athlete can make informed decisions about their preferences and be fully involved when we write a script together. Being flexible in the ‘hoW’ can also work very well. For example, one cross-country runner I worked with wanted to include in his script (created to improve confidence in his stamina): (1) The starting pens and first 100m (first person perspective); (2) Fighting to stay in front mid-race (through a camera lens, following him from the side); (3) Sprinting the final 200m (first person perspective).

Reflection 4: Being creative in using imagery

The various scenarios and scripts provided during the workshop inspired me to think outside the box more, whilst still guided by research. For example, I now use performance videos of athletes to help them create their imagery scripts. Or, we’ll go to their training ground or competition venue and use their reflections on physical performance to inform the imagery. I now more often integrate imagery with other tools/interventions. For example, one equestrian event rider I work with listens to a self-selected soundtrack whilst walking the cross-country course. The rider then uses this same soundtrack whilst mentally running through how she wants to ride the course, to enhance confidence, focus, and reach her ideal performance activation. Another rider I work with combines imagery of show-jumping with using cue words we have put in place; helping the automaticity of these words (since riders cannot physically practice as often as some other sports; the horse would become very tired, very quickly!).

This is by no means a ‘how to’ guide, but simply some examples of how I have extended my applied use of imagery following the BRIO workshop. I would love to hear any fellow practitioners’ input or examples! Further, the workshop is one that I would genuinely recommend for students, trainees, or established practitioners looking to expand or refresh their knowledge and implementation of imagery. My only regret was that Joe’s was closed for refurbishment.

Jo Davies bwAbout the author: Jo runs a private sport psychology consultancy, regularly working with athletes of many different sports, levels, and ages. She is also undertaking a PhD at the University of Hertfordshire on ‘Self-practice/self-reflection in sport psychology practitioners’. Contact Jo via http://www.jdpsychology.co.uk or @jdpsychology.

RIO meeting 2015

The RIO group
The Research in Imagery and Observation (RIO) Group was formed in 2006 and aims to provide a forum to meet and discuss research in imagery and observation. The purposes of the meetings are to give members a chance to present their research findings and ideas and to facilitate group discussions. The RIO group organizes one meeting a year at different locations across Europe. There is a useful range of expertise within the group and the research carried out by the members varies from applied sport science to cognitive-neuroscience (including for example research within exercise and rehabilitation). Find out more about group and the annual meetings here.

The RIO meeting 2015

Day one
Mary Quinton and Fredrik Weibull from our BRIO group attended the 9th Research in Imagery and Observation (RIO) meeting at the University of Stirling, Scotland on the 14th-15th May 2015.

The first day started with an invited lecture from Professor Ferdinand Binkofski who talked about the implementation of action observation in neurorehabilitation. Any students would be happy to know that this research area suggests naps are beneficial to consolidate learning to remember things better, a tip for upcoming exam revision perhaps?

The theme of rehabilitation then continued into the first symposium – “Imagery and Observation in Clinical Science”. These presentations included research from the Body Eyes and Movement (BEAM) lab at Manchester University who have been investigating different gesture viewpoints during action description and the effects of visual cues on hand movements in Parkinson’s disease.

Ling Choo and colleagues based at the University of Glasgow then presented results from their systematic review on the neural correlates of bilateral upper limb training after stroke. Surprisingly there have been no imagery interventions in this area of research – an invitation for someone reading this blog?

Tadhg MacIntyre’s research group then talked about motor imagery use for injured athletes during recovery and the topic of cognitive dissonance between simulation and execution – a really interesting topic which I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about in the near future. In symposium two (“Imagery and Observation in Sport and Exercise Science”), MacIntyre’s research group spoke about their upcoming research investigating depression through motor simulation and motor imagery performance and injured athletes’ imagery use in recovery using a mixed methods approach. Does this sound interesting to you? Want to hear more? Look out for our interview from the conference with Tadhg MacIntyre (coming soon on the BRIO group blog).

Tadhg MacIntyre

Adam Bruton (University of Roehampton) then presented some of his PhD work on the effect of observation interventions on collective efficacy in elite youth rugby union players. Even though the rugby team didn’t have the best season overall, watching video highlights of their matches at the start of each week helped improve their collective efficacy – it truly is the taking part that counts?

Last but by no means least, BRIO members Mary Quinton and Fredrik Weibull presented their PhD research. Mary discussed how who you are can influence your perception of your imagery experience, as her research shows that skill level influences how an individual interprets their imagery (i.e., as facilitative or debilitative). Whereas Fredrik discussed how exercise imagery mediates the relationship between exercise behaviour and affective outcomes, showing that enjoyment imagery can partially explain why people enjoy their exercise experience and experience positive outcomes from their exercise behaviour, like revitalization.

Fredrik Weibull
In the end of the first day we experienced a fantastic whisky tasting at the venue which included a lot of laughs. This was followed by a lovely dinner.

Day two
Stéphane Grade (University of Louvain) was the first presenter during the symposium of day 2 (“Imagery and Observation in Action Cognition”). He gave an informative talk about exploring action simulation embodied cognition using distance estimation and reachability perception judgment. This was followed by Daniel Eaves (Lancaster University) who presented research by himself and colleagues on “The effects of physical practice on automatic imitation effects in rhythmical actions”.

Bretherton presented work by himself and Watt (University of Sterling) on music, motion and emotion. We listened to a piece of music while Bretherton showed us how music affects Heart Rate (HR). Predictable parts of the music lowered HR while unpredictable parts caused an increase in HR. Bretherton also described why music could be seen as a person in motion.

This was followed by interesting talks from Ellen Poliakoff (University of Manchester) on “Exploring the effects of attention and motor imagery on the kinematics of imitated hand actions” and Clément Letesson (University of Louvain) on “Action prediction from action observation and contextual cues”. Bruce and Ietswaart also presented fascinating work with parrots and how they can learn from observing different human actions.

The conference ended with an invited lecture from Scott Glover who talked about his ideas of a unified model of imagery and about the factors influencing the timing of real and imagined actions. He gave an interesting talk in which among other things he criticized the use of the term functional equivalence. Instead he proposed to use the term functional overlap. He presented a model of the neural and behavior processes of motor imagery and how they relate to the processes of real action. He also presented research that supported some of the tenets of the model.

It was a great conference with its usual mix of researchers from cognitive, clinical and sport science backgrounds. The presentations and meetings stimulated great discussions on both theoretical and practical issues. We want to thank the organizers for a great experience. Next year we the RIO group will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Check the RIO group website for updates.