- A new research study suggests that just thinking of exercising can have the same effects as actually hitting the gym
- Scientists have long known the connection between the brain and muscle movement, but now, they have discovered that imagery techniques can delay muscle atrophy
- This new development may lead to improvements in neurorehabilitation and help control the negative effects of aging
A new research study suggests that just thinking of exercising can have the same effects as actually hitting the gym, officials say.
A recent study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that simply imagining exercise can tone muscle, delay atrophy, and even make your muscles stronger.
The researchers wrapped the wrists of one of the sets in a cast and gave them instructions to sit still for 11 minutes, five days a week, for four weeks, and ‘perform mental imagery of strong muscle contractions,’ — or, imagine exercising.
MIND OVER MATTER, THE BRAIN ALONE CAN TONE MUSCLE
ATHENS, Ohio, Dec. 24 (UPI) — New research suggests muscles respond to simple thoughts of exercise; simply imagining exercise can trick the muscles into delaying atrophy and even getting stronger. It’s further proof that brain and body, which evolved together, are more entwined than separate.
To demonstrate the power of the brain, researchers at Ohio University wrapped a single wrist of two sets of study participants in a cast — immobilizing their muscles for four weeks. One set was instructed to sit still and intensely imagine exercising for 11 minutes, five days a week. More than just casually daydream about going to the gym, participants were instructed to devote all of their mental energy towards imagining flexing their arm muscles.
The other set of study participants weren’t given any specific instructions. At the end of the four weeks, the mental-exercisers were two times stronger than the others.
Researchers also used magnetic imaging to isolate the area of the brain responsible for the specific arm muscles. Participants that imagine exercise not only had stronger arms but also a stronger brain; their mental exercises created stronger neuromuscular pathways
“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,” study author Brian Clark, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, said in a press release.
“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,” Clark added. “This information may fundamentally change how we think about muscle weakness in the elderly.”
Previous studies have shown that mental exercise can actually make muscles stronger (as opposed to simply preventing or slowing atrophy), and that thinking about exercise activates the same areas of the brain as real exercise.
Of course, researchers aren’t suggesting forgoing exercise; nothing works quite as well at encouraging both brain and body health as the the real thing.
The study was recently published in the Journal of Neurophysiology.
The cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness
We tested the hypothesis that the nervous system, and the cortex in particular, is a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness and that a high level of corticospinal inhibition is an important neurophysiological factor regulating force generation. A group of healthy individuals underwent 4 wk of wrist-hand immobilization to induce weakness. Another group also underwent 4 wk of immobilization, but they also performed mental imagery of strong muscle contractions 5 days/wk. Mental imagery has been shown to activate several cortical areas that are involved with actual motor behaviors, including premotor and M1 regions. A control group, who underwent no interventions, also participated in this study. Before, immediately after, and 1 wk following immobilization, we measured wrist flexor strength, voluntary activation (VA), and the cortical silent period (SP; a measure that reflect corticospinal inhibition quantified via transcranial magnetic stimulation). Immobilization decreased strength 45.1 ± 5.0%, impaired VA 23.2 ± 5.8%, and prolonged the SP 13.5 ± 2.6%. Mental imagery training, however, attenuated the loss of strength and VA by ∼50% (23.8 ± 5.6% and 12.9 ± 3.2% reductions, respectively) and eliminated prolongation of the SP (4.8 ± 2.8% reduction). Significant associations were observed between the changes in muscle strength and VA (r = 0.56) and SP (r = −0.39). These findings suggest neurological mechanisms, most likely at the cortical level, contribute significantly to disuse-induced weakness, and that regular activation of the cortical regions via imagery attenuates weakness and VA by maintaining normal levels of inhibition.
New evidence shows link between brain function and muscle strength
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. This finding has potential implications for patients undergoing neurorehabilitation, such as those who have suffered a stroke. 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. The results from the study are slated to be published later this fall in the Journal of Neurophysiology and are currently online at http://jn.physiology.org/content/early/2014/09/24/jn.00386.2014.
According to Brian Clark, Ph.D., 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, but there was controversy about the link between the cortex and muscle strength. 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 article along with OMNI researchers Niladri Mahato, M.B.B.S.; Masato Nakazawa, Ph.D.; Timothy Law, D.O., M.B.A.; and James Thomas, P.T., Ph.D.
OMNI is an interdisciplinary institute that brings together scientists from several Ohio University colleges and schools to study disorders of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. OMNI has strong programmatic efforts in two research divisions: 1) musculoskeletal and neurological pain disorders and 2) healthy aging. The research across these two divisions has an overarching aim of developing interventions that remove barriers to independent physical mobility and ultimately reduce disability.
“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.”
To test the brain’s connection to muscle strength, study participants had one arm immobilized 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).
Clark will be conducting additional research on muscle strength loss in an upcoming four-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Aging. The study, officially named Unraveling the Neural Contributions of Dynapenia in Elders (The UNCODE Study), will use noninvasive techniques to better understand the connection between the brain, nervous system and muscles in the elderly.
The imagery study was primarily funded from a grant from the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine is a leader in training dedicated primary care physicians who are prepared to address the most pervasive medical needs in the state and the nation. Approximately 50 percent of Heritage College alumni practice in primary care and nearly 60 percent practice in Ohio. CARE LEADS HERE.