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Is Muscle Strength All in Your Head?

How imagining an exercise can tangibly affect your body.

It’s all in your head. Muscle mass, that is, not neuroticism. 

Researchers at Ohio University’s Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute have found that muscle strength is largely based on brain activity, not just hours logged at the gym. 

In the study, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, 29 volunteers had their non-dominant arm placed in an elbow-to-finger cast for four weeks. Half were asked to perform mental-imagery exercises five days a week in which they imagined themselves flexing and resting their immobilized wrist for five-second intervals; the other half did not. 

In the end, both groups had lost strength in their restrained arm, but the individuals who completed mental-imagery exercises were only 25% weaker, compared to a 45% loss in strength among those who did not perform the mental-imagery exercises, The Atlantic reported

Typically, people think muscle strength depends on muscle size, but it has more to do with muscle memory, the researchers say. 

“If you swing a golf club for the first time, you’ll likely miss the golf ball. But if you do it a hundred times, you’ll learn how to hit that ball,” Brian Clark, a physiology professor at Ohio University and the study’s lead author says. “Well, the same thing happens when we go through periods where we don’t do tasks—we kind of forget how to do it.”

The mental-imagery prevented the participants from losing as much muscle mass because our muscles act as “puppets to the nervous system.” 

This is good news for us all. Spend five minutes at your desk imagining an arm, leg or ab exercise can actually have a tangible effect. Just don’t rely solely on your brain for getting you in tip-top shape. You'll be disappointed to find that your imagination can't carve a six-pack on its own.

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