September 24, 2021

Strengthen Your Mind…and Body?

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Imagination is the language of the soul. Pay attention to your imagination and you will discover all you need to be fulfilled.
Albert Einstein

What’s the biggest reason we don’t do what’s good for us?

I can say the most common answer I get – especially when it comes to training and exercise is time.  Perhaps a close second would be lack of equipment or access to a proper environment (in New York City that could often mean “my apartment can barely fit my couch in it”).

What if there was a way that you can train your mind and your body without equipment?  What if there was a way to train your mind and body without even moving?  Would you do it then?

Back in 1894 the great Spanish neuroanatomist and Noble laureate Santiago y Cajal proposed an idea. His idea stated that “mental practice” was capable of strengthening existing neuronal connections and also create new ones. However due to the limitations in technology of his time Santiago was unable to prove his theory and would chase (in vain) how the brain was plastic all his life.

Neural plasticity is now commonly accepted throughout all of neuroscience as one of the most amazing things our brains are capable of. It is the ability of the brain to rewire itself in response to injury, experience and even training. It was once accepted that our brains were not malleable at all and that we were born with all the pathways we had – good, bad or indifferent that was simply the hand you were dealt.

Today we know better. 

So what does this mean for us?  It means that this is a potential tool to help people in pain promote behaviors that may ultimately lead to improved quality of life. 

Take for instance two groups of people who never studied piano shown the same set of notes and how to play them. One group was allowed to “physically practice” the sequence while another group was only allowed to perform “mental practice”. Both groups were allotted two hours a day for 5 days and were mapped before, during and after the experiment. At the end of the 5 days both groups showed similar changes in brain mapping and motor system adaptations.  The slight edge seen in favor of the “physical practice” group was all but eradicated by a single two hour physical training session with the “mental musicians”. 

In a similar study, two groups were studied to see the effects of imagined vs actual exercise in strength gains of a finger muscle over 4 weeks. The training group performed 15 maximal contractions with a 20 second rest while the imagination group merely pictured themselves doing the same “work” while someone was yelling “Harder! Harder!”  The end results?  The physical training group improved muscle strength by 30%. The group that imagined training?  They improved by 22%!

If we liken ourselves to a chunk of play dough, as Dr Pascual-Leone proposes, everything we do shapes us in some way, and being that we are plastic, not elastic, even when we resort back to an “original shape” we are never really quite the same. 

Good news:  We may be underestimating the power of persuasion and the true connection of mind and body in our clients and ourselves.  Even clients who feel like they cannot do anything, do have the power to control their thoughts and imaginations for short periods of time. 

Bad news:  We cannot simply imagine running and going to the gym to get the same health benefits a real workout gives us – but who knows, it also may be shown somewhere down the line that we just simply weren’t concentrating hard enough.

References:

Doidge, N “The Brain that Changes Itself” (2007) pages 196-214

A Pascual-Leon et al “Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during acquisition of new fine motor skills.” Journal of Neurophysiology, 74(3): 1037-45 

G. Your et al “Strength Increases from the motor program: Comparison of strength training with maximal voluntary and imagined muscle contractions.” Journal of Neurophysiology, 67(5): 1114-23

Joe LaVacca is a Physical Therapist based out of New York City where he owns his own private practice; Strength in Motion Physical Therapy. Joe’s focus on communication, emotion, and education are the 3 primary tools he uses to build empowerment while teaching and with his patients. Joe is the lead educator for Fringe Inc, a company focused on building a community for human beings to support one another, while promoting and celebrating the very things that make us who we are.