The connection between mind and body is both fascinating and complex. So complex, in fact, that scientists have only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to unraveling the power of the brain to create physical changes in the body.
Visualization, or guided imagery, is a technique that can have significant measurable effects on body systems and physical attributes. It is common knowledge that guided imagery can help you relax, but now science has proven its remarkable ability to maintain and increase muscle strength without physical movement. Visualization has even been shown to bolster your immune system.
In today’s article, we’ll look at remarkable scientific studies that have proven the efficacy of visualization and the mechanisms by which this practice can help you stay healthy. Then you’ll learn how to use this valuable tool to achieve better bone health and overall well-being.
Visualization And Guided Imagery
Visualization and guided imagery are names for a technique of picturing or imagining specific images, sounds, smells, actions, and experiences.
Guided imagery is an ancient healing practice, and contemporary research has confirmed its efficacy and revealed some of the mechanisms by which it has a real impact on the body. Some researchers consider it to be a variety of hypnosis, while others position it more in the realm of meditation.1
Visualization has a wide variety of applications, from enhancing athletic performance to reducing anxiety, to overcoming an illness. The Osteoporosis Reversal Program recommends guided imagery as a way to reduce cortisol levels and improve bone health.
Visualization is a technique of imagining a sensory experience or action without physically experiencing or performing it.
Building Muscle Through Visualization
Muscle strength is easy to measure with a physical test. It’s more difficult to discern what allows our muscles to apply more or less force. Anatomical factors like muscle mass only provide part of the explanation. The efficacy of the brain and nervous system also determine strength or weakness.
Voluntary activation (VA) is when the nervous system activates muscles, but the signal that triggers the muscle to contract may not engage the muscle to its maximum voluntary contraction, creating less force than the muscle is capable of. VA demonstrates how the nervous system is a key determinant of strength or weakness. It’s one of several factors that visualization can measurably improve.
A study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology tested the impact of visualization on muscle strength. The researchers placed casts on the wrists of 29 participants for four weeks to induce muscle weakness. Half the participants received no special instructions, but the other half practiced visualizations of physical exercises five times a week during the study.2
The exercises they imagined were maximal contractions of the muscles in their immobilized arm. The researchers monitored the participants' muscles using an electromyogram to ensure that they were not actually activating their muscles, only imagining doing so. In each session, they performed 52 imagined contractions in four sets of 13 imagined contractions with one minute of rest between each set.
In both groups of participants, immobilization significantly decreased strength and impaired VA. But visualizing wrist exercises reduced the loss of strength and VA by about 50%. That means that when the casts came off, the group that imagined the exercises had wrist muscles that were twice as strong as of those who did not practice visualization.2
This finding aligns with more research that has found that mental imagery of maximal muscle contractions increases strength. Another study compared the effects of mental visualizations of exercises to physical exercises and to a control group that performed neither. The participants who performed the physical exercises increased their strength the most, but the visualization group also saw significant gains.3
The study authors concluded that the mental training “enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength.”3
Visualization is not a replacement for physical exercise, but it is a complementary method for increasing strength that is available even when physical activity is restricted or impossible.
Increasing muscle strength is a priority for Savers because the force that muscles apply to bone stimulates new bone growth.
Visualizing a physical exercise helps to maintain physical strength when exercise is not possible.
Visualization And The Immune System
There is ample research on how visualization impacts the immune system. The efficacy of guided imagery is usually measured using white blood cell (WBC) count either locally at a site of infection or in the bloodstream. Studies have found that guided imagery increases WBC count, boosting the immune system.1
WBC count tends to decrease in the initial stages of participating in guided imagery or relaxation interventions, only to increase after four to five weeks of training. Researchers have postulated that the stress of learning a new technique may be what causes the initial reduction.4 The final effect, however, is positive. The fastest changes in WBC count occur in people with a depressed WBC count, but ultimately they also occur in healthy individuals.1
The type of visualizations used to reduce stress and boost immune function vary widely. Sometimes it is very specific, such as imagining being in a calming and beautiful place. Other times it is abstract, as when participants are taught to perceive their physical bodies in warm baths of healing light.
A study at the University of Miami found that guided imagery therapy accompanied by music decreased participants cortisol levels, and the lower levels persisted six weeks after the therapy.5
The prevention of elevated cortisol levels is recommended for bone health, since cortisol, the stress hormone, impairs healthy bone remodeling and is acidifying.
Guided imagery visualization has been shown to increase white blood cell count, boosting immune function. This is likely due to increased relaxation and a reduction in cortisol levels, which also benefit bone health.
How To Use Visualization
Visualization can take many forms and be used for many different purposes. Whether you’re trying to make it through an exercise routine or support your immune system, what works for you might not work for someone else. Here are some guidelines for crafting your own successful visualizations:
- Practice – Like anything else, it takes practice for guided imagery to start working. Stick with your visualizations and try variations to discover what works best for you. Practice visualization several times a day, for a few minutes each session.
- Experiment – Do you enjoy going to the beach? Construct the experience of being at the beach in your mind. Experiment with abstract imagery too: try envisioning your body submerged in a warm and calming light. Don’t forget to breathe and relax. Visualization pairs well with meditation, so if you meditate try incorporating guided imagery.
- Engage All Your Senses – Make sure your visualizations are engaging more than just visual imagery. What do you smell, feel, hear, or taste? Be sure to flesh out your imagined scenario with all the stimuli we experience in real life.
- Find The Positive – If your goal is to overcome challenges, like a long run, be sure to imagine the most positive version of success. Focus your imagination on enjoying a reward, or the feelings of triumph when you accomplish your goal. Avoid thinking about what’s difficult or unpleasant.
- Get Creative – Let your imagination run wild. Take yourself to impossible dream-scapes, and concoct engaging metaphors to guide your body toward your goal. If you want to help your immune system beat a cold, you could imagine your white blood cells as warriors on horseback defeated the invading horde of the viral infection. Your mind is capable of extraordinary things, and staying engaged and invested in your imagery will make it more impactful. Try writing down your visualizations as a way to deepen them and remember them for future use.
- Find Supportive Spaces – Focus is important for guided imagery, so seek out the times and places in your day-to-day life when you can claim a few minutes to visualize. Maybe it’s a park bench at dawn, your kitchen table before dinner, or even your office.
- Use Available Resources – There are many resources for guided imagery that you can find online and in recorded media. This can be a great way to find out what sort of visualizations work for you so that you can practice self-guided imagery.
- Don’t Forget To Do The Work – Visualizing is a useful tool, but make sure you’re also taking the real-world steps to accomplish your goal. Visualizing can help you exercise more efficiently, but it can’t take the place of physical activity. The same is true for whatever your goal might be.
You can start using visualizations today. Find a quiet place where you can focus. Engage all your senses when visualizing a calming activity, physical exercise, or when trying to accomplish a goal.
Seeing A Healthier You
The science behind the efficacy of visualization is a clear reminder that our minds and our bodies are inextricably linked. Old idioms like “mind over matter” or “brains vs. brawn” falsely separate these two inseparable parts of ourselves. By recognizing that they’re interconnected, we can make good use of how both support and strengthen each other.
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1 Trakhtenberg EC. “The effects of guided imagery on the immune system: a critical review.” Int J Neurosci. 2008 Jun;118(6):839-55. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18465428
2 Brian C. Clark, et al. “The power of the mind: the cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness.” Journal of Neurophysiology 2014 112:12, 3219-3226. Web. https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/jn.00386.2014
3 Ranganathan VK, et al. “From mental power to muscle power–gaining strength by using the mind.” Neuropsychologia. 2004;42(7):944-56. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14998709
4 Donaldson, V. W. (2000). A clinical study of visualization on depressed white blood cell count in medical patients. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 25(2), 230–235. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10932336
5 McKinney et al. “Effects of guided imagery and music (GIM. therapy on mood and cortisol in healthy adults.” Health Psychology. 1997. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9237092