Just Thinking About Exercise Can Trick Your Body Into Believing It’s Worked Out

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Photo: Erik Isakson

Has anyone else been feeling a little bit of Olympic-driven shame over the past week and a half? You know, that thing where you look at the people on your screen committing near-superhuman feats of athletic strength and think, Ugh, maybe I should run tomorrow.

And then, if you’re anything like me, you pat yourself on the back for even thinking about it, and settle back on the couch to keep watching. But — this is great news for all the like-minded lazy folk out there — even if you don’t actually get up and channel Usain Bolt the next morning, you really do deserve a little bit of credit for the thought. Picturing yourself exercising obviously isn’t as good as the real thing, but it’s better than nothing: As Jim Davis, a professor of cognitive psychology at Canada’s Carleton University, explained in Nautilus today, just the act of imagining a workout can actually make you stronger.

The reason has to do with something called proprioception, the sense of knowing where your body parts are and what each one is doing. (Proprioception is why you can touch your finger to your nose without looking in a mirror, for example.) “Because it’s a sense, just like hearing and seeing, you can have mental imagery specific to it,” Davis wrote. And “just as visual imagery uses the same brain areas as visual perception, motor imagery tends to use the same brain areas responsible for moving your body.”

And giving those brain areas a workout can translate to real physical benefits. In one 2014 study, researchers took people whose arms were in casts and asked half of them to imagine flexing their wrists; when the casts came off, the muscles they’d thought about were twice as strong as in people who hadn’t done the mental work. Other research, Davis noted, has found that imaginary exercise can be enough to raise your heart rate.

It can also, in some cases, help you fine-tune your motor skills: “Mental practice is one of the few effective performance-enhancing activities,” he wrote, especially in physical activities that require some cognitive work. “For example, doctors who mentally practice before engaging in a virtual-reality surgery outperform those who do not. One study, by Rutgers psychologist Robert Woolfolk, and colleagues, had people simply imagine putting a golf ball into the hole before they took their shot. The people who imagined making it had 30.4 percent more successful putts than those who did not.”

Granted, imaginary exercise isn’t a replacement for the myriad benefits of physical exercise, but it’s a pretty good supplement: “By just using our imagination,” Davis concluded, “we can improve ourselves for real.” I’ll take it — especially when there’s still a full week of couch-bound Olympics watching ahead.