Just thinking about exercising can actually make your muscles stronger, a new study suggests.
Researchers at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine have found that mental imagery exercises can prevent muscles from getting weaker after not being used for extended periods of time.
The finding has potential implications for patients undergoing neurorehabilitation, such as those who have suffered a stroke, researchers said.
It is also a major breakthrough for scientists and clinicians because it offers encouraging, new evidence about the role of the nervous system in muscle weakness.
Although imagery techniques are commonly used by professional athletes to improve their performance, this is the first study to show that imagery can play a role in stopping or slowing the loss of muscle strength following prolonged disuse.
According to Brian Clark, professor of physiology and neuroscience at the Heritage College and executive director of the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI), scientists have long known that the brain’s cortex helps coordinate and control muscle movement.
Clark describes muscles as the puppets of the nervous system and the brain as the string that makes muscles move.
“We wanted to tease out the underlying physiology between the nervous system and muscles to better understand the brain’s role in muscle weakness,” said Clark, who authored the research article.
“What our study suggests is that imagery exercises could be a valuable tool to prevent or slow muscles from becoming weaker when a health problem limits or restricts a person’s mobility,” said Clark.
“The most impactful finding, however, is not the direct clinical application but the support that this work provides for us to better understand the critical importance of the brain in regulating muscle strength. This information may fundamentally change how we think about muscle weakness in the elderly,” Clark added.
To test the brain’s connection to muscle strength, study participants had one arm immobilised in a cast for a month.
Five times a week, they performed imagery exercises. In the exercise, researchers told participants to relax their forearm muscles and then imagine contracting their muscles and flexing their wrist. Researchers recorded participants’ muscle activity using an electromyogram (EMG).
The study was published in the journal Neurophysiol.