Mind over matter

| August 1, 2023

We are often told scientific research has shown that a particular diet/exercise/lifestyle is beneficial for a longer and healthier life. These findings are usually based on observation of a group of people over an extended period of time. One of the problems of this technique is that it is just observational (testing and measuring the physical attributes of the bodies concerned).

Picturing yourself exercising obviously isn’t as good as the real thing, but it’s better than nothing: As Jim Davis, a professor of cognitive psychology at Canada’s Carleton University, explained, just the act of imagining a workout can actually make you stronger.


The reason has to do with something called proprioception, the sense of knowing where your body parts are and what each one is doing. (Proprioception is why you can touch your finger to your nose without looking in a mirror, for example.) “Because it’s a sense, just like hearing and seeing, you can have mental imagery specific to it,” Davis wrote. And “just as visual imagery uses the same brain areas as visual perception, motor imagery tends to use the same brain areas responsible for moving your body.”

And giving those brain areas a workout can translate to real physical benefits. In one 2014 study, researchers took people whose arms were in casts and asked half of them to imagine flexing their wrists; when the casts came off, the muscles they’d thought about were twice as strong as in people who hadn’t done the mental work. Other research, Davis noted, has found that imaginary exercise can be enough to raise your heart rate.


Another study has found that short bursts of vigorous physical activity lasting just a few minutes incorporated into daily activities reduce cancer risk. It’s great news for people who don’t have time to – or don’t want to – go to the gym to work out.

Studies have shown the positive effects of vigorous physical activity on reducing the risk of developing cancers. But, for some, taking time out of a busy schedule to exercise is too difficult, too expensive, or just not appealing, despite the health benefits.

That’s where “vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity” (VILPA) might prove to be a more attractive alternative. VILPA refers to brief, sporadic – one- or two-minute – bouts of vigorous physical activity incorporated into everyday activities. Bursts of fast walking, stair climbing, energetic housework, or lugging around heavy groceries, for example.

A minimum of 3.5 minutes of daily VILPA was associated with an 18% reduction in cancer incidence compared to no exercise. Meanwhile, 4.5 minutes a day dropped the incidence of physical activity-related cancer by 32%. The researchers saw the steepest gains in people who did small amounts of VILPA compared to none; however, benefits continued to improve with higher daily levels of VILPA.

“It’s quite remarkable to see that upping the intensity of daily tasks for as little as one minute each is linked to an overall reduction in cancer risk by up to 18%, and up to 32% for cancer types linked to physical activity,” Stamatakis said.

All these observations have one thing in common: they fail to take into account the personalities of the participants. A person who decides to diet or exercise generally does so because he/she believes that doing so will improve his/her quality of life. We know that our brain can control many facets of our daily lives – even achieving the ‘impossible’.

Until Hilary climbed Everest it was considered unclimbable, this year a woman did it three times in four months. Belief is an important factor in life – we have a much better chance of achieving a goal if we genuinely believe we can do it. People cure their cancer by concentrating on it, die because of a hex, run across Australia to raise money for a child – all because they believe in it. Our brains can achieve much more than we generally realise.