Imagery in exercise and physical activity: You can be whatever you make up your mind to be

By Maria-Christina Kosteli

Are you among these people who are constantly looking for excuses to avoid going to the gym? Do you want to start exercising but you find it difficult? Imagery can be the answer to your question. In this post, my goal is to explain how imagery can be a very powerful tool as well as give you some tips and suggestions on how to use it.

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Why imagery is so  powerful?

Have you heard the notion that for whatever you can imagine you can achieve? Basically, imagery can give you the confidence that you can do something and help you prepare for it. It has been extensively used by athletes and has been shown to be associated with successful performance. But athletes are not the only ones who can benefit from it.

How does imagery work and how can it be used in exercise?

Previous research has shown that when you imagine yourself exercising it is more likely that you will end up doing it. Are you wondering why? Simply put, your brain does not differentiate very much between a real event and an imagined one. It is like tricking your mind that you are exercising without really moving from your chair.  So when you imagine yourself exercising, you may experience same feelings and sensations as if you were actually doing it.

For example:

  • if you imagine yourself lifting weights you might experience tension in your muscles.
  • You could feel your heart beating faster while you imagine walking with fast pace in the treadmill.
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It is important to note that not everyone is able to imagine kinesthetically and experience the movement or the sensation associated with it. Some people can easily visualize but have a hard time experiencing a picture as a sound or smell. This is why imagery is also known as visualization. However, imagery is multifaceted and is not limited to one sensation.

When to use imagery?

When you use imagery it is important that you know what you want to achieve. If for example you have fear that you might not be able to do a certain move, it would be wise if you picture yourself completing the workout. Thus, some people use imagery to improve their skills and technique while engaging in a certain activity. This can happen by simply picturing yourself doing an exercise correctly. In this way you convince yourself that you can actually do it even if it is challenging. Thus, imagery can build your confidence and motivate you to do things you would never imagine you could do. Make sure that what you imagine is as close as possible to what you want to achieve.

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What happens with people who are totally unmotivated to initiate physical activity? 

If you are among the people who have a hard time getting out of their sofa, you can start by picturing yourself getting ready and preparing to go for a run or a walk. Think about all the things that you do prior to commencing exercise such as putting athletic attire on, getting a flask with water, or even grabbing your iPod if you enjoy listening to the music while you exercise. The more details you include in your imagery the more effective it will be. In imagery you can use all your sensations to make it as realistic and vivid as possible. Imagery can also be used as a way to overcome difficult situations. Let’s say for example that it is raining and you feel unmotivated to get ready to go to the gym. What you could do is to imagine a warm bath or a cup of tea after completing your goal. In other words, picturing the reward at the end of exercise can motivate you to actually do it.

Can everybody use imagery?

Although some people are better than others in formulating images, this does not mean that imagery is limited to certain people. Imagery is a skill and it is something that you can improve on. The same way you engage in physical training, you can also have mental training. Thus, the more you practice imagery, the better you will become. You can use imagery anywhere and at any time. For example, you can use imagery before you start exercising or during exercise, in your car, before you go to bed etc. If you are still unsure if imagery is for you, you should try it out for yourself. You might be amazed with how powerful it can be.

About the Author: Maria-Christina Kosteli is a final year PhD student in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the School of Sport, Exercise, and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham. The opinions expressed in this post are my own.

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One thought on “Imagery in exercise and physical activity: You can be whatever you make up your mind to be

  1. Pingback: Exercise imagery | Fredrik Weibull's Blog

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