If you’re looking for big benefits without a lot of physical activity every day, strength training is one of the best exercises to do. Weight lifting, yoga, Pilates, and bodyweight exercises (like squats, push-ups, and pull-ups) have been found to lower type 2 diabetes risk and help people lose fat–particularly unhealthy belly fat. But what does it take to keep real muscle mass you put on through strength training? We already know that your brain plays a big role, but what exactly does it do to control how strong you are? A new study from the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute at Ohio University has given us some surprising answers.
The study looked at 44 people. 29 of them had casts on their arms, which we know causes people to lose strength over time. (This is because casts limit arm movement, which maintains muscle mass.) The researchers had half of the participants regularly imagine that they were making very tight fists with the hands that were in casts. They did not actually make fists, they only imagined they did, for five seconds at a time. At the end of the study, the people who did not do these imaginary exercises lost twice as much strength as the people who did.
The researchers aren’t exactly sure how big of a role your imagination can play in helping you stay strong. Though this study was very small and did not last a long time, it showed that there might be very exciting future research in this area. It could also mean that healthcare providers may be able to help people keep their strength when they face common diabetes problems, like amputation (having to cut off an arm, leg, foot, or hand) and hospital visits.