Meditation and mindfulness have been growing in popularity. The wellness industry in the U.S. alone is worth $1 billion, with no signs of slowing down. The increase in depression, anxiety, and the continued reliance on a digital world are just some of the reasons cited as why. The practice has sprung up in schools, in homes, and in the workplace, with the list of benefits ranging from emotional health, to better sleep, to the reduction of chronic pain.
But can training your mind help improve your physical performance as well?
Elite athletes seem to think so.
Basketball star LeBron James, one of the winningest players of all time, credits mental imagery as a huge boost to his game. He’s even teamed up with the mindfulness app, Calm, recording sleep stories and meditation programs to help people take control of their thinking.
“[Mental fitness is] something I’ve always prioritized, and it’s just as important to my game, my career, and my life than anything I can do physically,” said James in a press release for Calm.
Mental imagery is simply visualizing – or seeing mental pictures – in your brain and imagining various stimuli, without actually experiencing them.
“Imagery is used by virtually all great athletes and research has shown that, when combined with actual practice, improves performance more than practice alone,” writes Dr. Jim Taylor, a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco and former international ski racer, in an article for Psychology Today. “Imagery also isn't just a mental experience that occurs in your head, but rather impacts you in every way: psychologically, emotionally, physically, technically, and tactically. Think of mental imagery as weight lifting for the mind.”
The bottom line? “If you aren’t engaged in a consistent mental imagery program,” he continues, “you’re not doing everything you can to achieve your athletic goals.
How It Works
Because of this growing awareness on the power of your mind, traditional fitness trainers, gyms and online programs are incorporating it into regular exercise programs.
Visual mental imagery involves the five senses to create as realistic of a mental picture as possible. Sports psychologists say it actually creates muscle memory, helping players improve their skills and performance, as well as helping them to stay calm and focused during a game.
The brain doesn’t differentiate between what we’re actually seeing and experiencing, and what we imagine we’re experiencing. So, if you visualize yourself finishing in the top 10 in your next marathon – imagined so completely that you can feel the breeze on your face and the ache in your legs; hear your breathing, and the sound of your shoes on the trail; smell the scent of fallen leaves; feel your heart beating stronger as the finish line comes into view. If you practice this scenario enough, you actually trick your brain into thinking it has already happened, and when it comes time for the race, your brain recalls the previous visualization, and in effect, already knows what to do.
Mental Imagery Tips
There are some basics that are necessary for success:
- Mental imagery goes hand-in-hand with regular training
- Practise daily
- Some proponents advise practising both before and after exercise or competition
- Visualize using all five senses; focus on creating as vivid a picture as possible
- Choose one or two very specific goals or outcomes and work on visualizing those. Heavier bench presses? A faster mile? A precise slapshot? Get real about what you want and focus your attention on that.
Supporting Your Practice
There are mental imagery exercises online you can do to start training your brain, and guided meditation apps can help boost the mental wellness benefits.
FitTrack’s brand new premium app, MyHealth+, used in conjunction with our Smart Scales, includes a mental component. One workout option called “zen stretching” helps calm and focus your mind on days when you’re not exercising heavily, and a category entitled “Body & Mind Fit” recognizes the importance of mental awareness and incorporates numerous exercise options that focus on the brain.
And when you can track 17 health metrics – including how you sleep, eat and move, and actually see how they impact overall health and fitness – you’ll get an individualized, holistic approach to wellness, giving you the information you need to create a healthy, happy lifestyle that works for you.
Mental imagery can be a powerful addition to your fitness tool box, whether you’re a beginner or a pro. “It's allowed me to see things before they happen,” said James in an article for ESPN.
You can sign up for a free 30-day trial of the brand new MyHealth app here.