Using the Power of Imagination to Plan for Behavior-Change Success

Filed under: Health and Fitness Tips — Wayne @ 6:56 pm July 17, 2015

“I asked her how she had been able to stick to her exercise program this year, when in the past she had usually stopped working out after a few months,” your friend, a fitness instructor and personal trainer, explains. “She told me that, every morning when she wakes up, she imagines herself going straight to the fitness center and enjoying her workout. She focuses on how good the workouts make her feel, how much energy she has during the day and how much better she sleeps at night. If something is coming up in the next few days, like visitors from out of town or school vacation, she makes a plan to squeeze in some activity. She says it only takes a few minutes, and that imagining herself getting to her workout seems to help make it really happen. I’m thinking of recommending this idea to my other clients. Instead of doing this kind of planning only at the beginning of an exercise program, they should also do a few minutes of planning and visualization each day. What do you think about this idea?”

Maximizing the power of visualization

Most fitness professionals are familiar with using visualization to enhance sports performance, manage stress and facilitate behavior change. Studies of athletes have found that mental performance of sports skills can enhance the improvement that comes with physical practice. Obviously, mental practice is not a substitute for physical training, but it can somehow sharpen an athlete’s focus so that physical training produces faster results.

If you have ever used visualization to improve your sports skills, you probably spent some time imagining yourself executing that particular skill: a perfect golf swing, tennis serve or skiing form. As you imagined this, you may have even felt your muscles responding as though trying to perform the imagined movements. As you visualized yourself performing a skill, you may have gathered information about the skill, and even gotten new ideas to try out at your next practice session.

Visualization appears to produce the best results when clients use it to focus on the process of skill acquisition, rather than simply focusing on the product: winning a race, match and so forth. In fact, in one study, focusing on the product appeared to be counterproductive.

Similar results have been found for visualization for the purpose of behavior change. People who visualize the skills needed to accomplish a certain behavior-change goal appear to make better progress than those who simply visualize themselves as having already achieved their goals. For example, people trying to quit smoking seem to get more benefit from visualizing themselves sipping tea after dinner instead of smoking, rather than just being a nonsmoker. People trying to lose weight may benefit more from imagining themselves going for a walk at lunch, rather than visualizing themselves as being thin.

How does visualization work?

Visualization seems to increase the engagement of people with the processes they are imagining, and to increase the likelihood that they will perform the types of behaviors that will help them succeed. You can maximize the power of visualization by asking clients to imagine potentially difficult situations, and to mentally rehearse skills for dealing successfully with these situations.

For example, the client in the opening paragraph might anticipate her children’s upcoming school vacation. She may remember that her schedule tends to fall to pieces as she takes some vacation days from work to be home with the kids. To get to the fitness center, she must arrange for childcare, and think about when and how to do that; you get the picture. As we imagine the future, thoughts and feelings come to us, and we often respond by devising solutions to possible problems.

As we visualize the future, we also practice coping with negative emotions. We may experience milder emotions than the actual event would elicit, but we still feel a full range of emotions. For example, as our client imagines the chaos of school vacation, she may experience some anxiety about not having control of her time. Researchers suggest that when we anticipate upcoming emotions, we deal with them more effectively, and are less likely to let negative emotions get in the way of our plans. This is very important, since negative emotions are one of the leading causes of relapse. When people feel bad, they may be more likely to resume smoking or drinking, or to drop out of their exercise programs.

Visualization may also give people a sense that they will be successful in reaching their goals. Because their goals seem reachable, they are willing to work harder to achieve them.

When to avoid visualization

In some instances, visualization can have negative consequences. Clients dealing with depression or previous traumatic experiences may experience more harm than good if they try using visualization techniques to deal with problems. People with depression may tend to worry a great deal, and endlessly mull over the same old issues. By dwelling on negative thoughts and feelings, they reinforce their depression. This is most likely to occur in a stress-management context, when people are trying to focus on situations that cause stress so they can get ideas for better coping. Clients with depression may be able to visualize getting out at lunch for a walk with no harmful consequences. In a similar fashion, clients still suffering from a traumatic experience may need professional help to obtain closure on that experience. Repeatedly visualizing that event may only prolong the trauma.

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