Subliminal Messages Might Improve Workout Performance

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Kevin Nealon as Mr. Subliminal during 'Weekend Update' on April 20, 1991.
Photo: Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Subliminal messaging — that is, quickly flashed messages designed to influence people without their awareness — has a bit of a fluffy reputation, given that it tends to be the stuff of Cold War espionage plots, and, in one memorable instance, partisan politics. But researchers have known for a while that so-called implicit-priming (basically a fancier name for subliminal messaging) can affect people’s perceptions and subsequent responses to questions. And now a team has released a paper claiming that, done correctly, subliminal messages of an encouraging nature can help people improve their workout performance.

For the first study reported in the paper, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers had participants pedal on exercise bikes until they simply couldn’t anymore. A smiley face was quickly flashed on a screen in front of some of the participants; others got a frowny face. Those in the smiley group peddled more than three minutes longer, on average, and reported lower levels of exhaustion. In a second study, the researchers exposed an endurance athlete to “action words” (ACTION, GO, LIVELY, and ENERGY) and “inaction words” (STOP, TOIL, SLEEP, and TIRED) as he peddled; they found he peddled for longer and felt less tired when primed with the action words.

The first study was small and the second involved a single individual, so a lot more research is needed to nail down these effects, if they really exist. But the idea of using subliminal messaging to improve workout performance is intriguing, to say the least.