Is it all in your head? Well, part of it is...

You’ve heard of sayings such as “you can do anything you set your mind to”, “you have to believe in yourself”, and “mind over matter”. How much of this is true? How much power is the human mind capable of? How do we exploit this potential to maximize our health and exercise performance? Is it truly all in our heads?

Optimal health is holistic health, which includes many aspects: physical, social, emotional, spiritual and mental well being.  While raising my own awareness on mental health, I have recently become interested in the practice of meditation. The most important thing I have learned about meditation is that it does not have to be done in a spiritual or religious context for one to benefit. One general type of meditation that I have researched and implemented in my own health routine is 'mindfulness meditation'. 

This involves paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the details of our experiences as they come and go, without rejecting these thoughts. Being mindful allows us to live in the 'now', controlling emotions related to past experiences and, in turn, mentally preparing us for future situations. Work, school, the 'challenge of the week' and visits with your in laws are stressful only if you perceive them to be that way. There is hard evidence supporting this!

In 2011, Zeidan and colleagues looked at the neurological mechanisms of mindfulness meditation and its effectiveness in controlling pain. Participants in this study were exposed to both hot and neutral temperature devices on their lower legs and were asked to rate the intensity of pain and unpleasantness. After just 4 days of mindfulness meditation training (20min/day), the subjects reported reduced unpleasantness by 57% and reduced pain intensity by 40% in comparison to the pre-training period. MRI scans showed increased brain activity in the areas involved in the cognitive regulation of pain processing and the reframing of the contextual evaluation of sensory events. Even with minimal training, meditation engages specific areas of the brain that alter the experience of pain.

Delving deeper into the topic of various brain functions, one area of the brain I want to highlight is the hippocampus.  The hippocampus is a part of the brain that helps regulate emotion through the “limbic system”. This portion of the brain also plays an important role in developing long-term memory and spatial (or navigational) memory. Research has shown that aerobic exercise increases the production of new neurons in the hippocampus, while dedicated and successful learning helps these new neurons survive. In one particular study, participants practiced mindful meditation, which was mentally challenging to learn. After this mental training, subjects completed 30 minutes of aerobic exercise with challenging movements and routines. These people increased their aerobic exercise capacity and decreased depression and anxiety greater than those who only did the aerobic exercise. Supplementing your aerobic routine with challenging cognitive exercises can help manage stress while improving performance at work or during your daily life activities!

When it comes to your exercise regimen, you can use your mind to help train your body, too!
Mentally imagining a muscle maximally contracting can facilitate strength gains in high-intensity resistance/strength training. This can be done through motor imagery    the mental process of rehearsing a specific physical action.  The neurological processes underlying motor imagery are similar to those activated during physical movement. Mentally imagining motor patterns has a positive influence on acquiring new motor skills as well. These same principles can be applied to your flexibility routine. Imagery has been shown to increase joint flexibility during both active and passive stretching. Applying this idea to new exercises in the gym will help you progress quicker, and in turn, help you reach your fitness goals sooner!

So, back to our original question: is it “all in your head”?  No, but keeping these facts and concepts in mind can help you take your physical exercise to the next level. Mental training can increase your physical potential, while improving all areas of your health. Be the best that you can be, because the only thing holding you back is YOU!

Written By:

Mitch Broser

Strength and Conditioning Specialist



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