Imagine That

Pardon me if I seem distracted this month. I've decided to work out while I write. In fact, I'm typing this sentence and benching 540 pounds at the same time. No spotter, either.

Unimaginable? Not when you participate in the imaginary workout. If you don't know about this excellent program, let me fill you in — because it makes real exercise obsolete.

Hold on a second, I want to add another 90 for my next set. Let me picture it…there.

Sorry, but this imaginary workout is great. You can get stronger without even breaking a sweat. Or so a new study claims. At the moment, however, I don't see how fake exercise compares to actual activity. Maybe I should have imagined benching 810.

Or maybe I should stick to the real thing (with lesser weight, of course).

The imaginary workout comes from Cleveland Clinic Foundation researchers, who presented their findings at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting. Since past studies have shown that exercising only one part of the body can strengthen the opposite side, the Cleveland researchers wanted to discover if brain signals could improve strength without any exercise at all.

At the start of the study, the scientists divided 30 healthy adults into three groups, according to Reuters Health. The first group imagined using the muscles in their pinkies. (Why the pinky? Don't ask me — I'm not a neuroscientist.) The second group imagined using their elbow flexor muscles. The third group didn't do any imaginary exercise.

The imaginary exercisers performed their mental workout 15 minutes a day, five days a week for three months. Researchers instructed the participants to make the imaginary exercise as real as possible. A special instrument made sure that “exercisers” didn't actually move, and the researchers recorded the participants' brain signals.

After the 12 weeks, the third group remained unchanged. However, brain scans of the imaginary exercisers showed that activity had become greater and more focused in the prefrontal cortex. The researchers claimed that the scans suggested improvements in the brain's ability to signal the muscles, resulting in strength gains.

Yes, there were gains, according to the study. The scientists reported that the elbow group strengthened their flexor muscles by 13.4 percent. They also reported that the pinky group increased strength in their little fingers by 35 percent. (They didn't, however, report the advantages of having a stronger pinky.)

I don't mean to be a wise guy, as I can honestly see the benefits of an imaginary workout. For example, thinking about exercise provides an excellent option for people who can't move. As one of the researchers told Reuters Health, “We believe that anyone who has difficulty doing physical exercises can use our mental training method to improve the muscle strength they have lost or maintain the muscle strength they have.”

That's fantastic. But what about those who simply don't want to exercise? The study gives them yet another reason to stay on the sofa. Why turn off the television when you can daydream your way through a workout during the commercials? And why stop with imaginary strength training? How about imaginary eating? (“Give me the sausage pizza. I'll just pretend it's a fruit plate.”) Or what about imaginary cardio? After all, a strong body built through imaginary training deserves a healthy heart.

I've no doubt that thinking about exercise can yield benefits. But I believe the best gains come when the mind and body work in tandem — when people concentrate on the exercises performed. An imaginary workout alone may work wonders for those who have no other choices, but I see no reason for ordinary people to imagine activity away.

Best regards,

Jerry Janda
Editor-in-Chief