Effectiveness of Imagined Movement on Improving Muscular Function

In the last 10 minutes of the TV programme “Trust Me I am a Doctor”, Series 5, episode 4 they scientifically proved what Feldenkrais practitioners have known for some time – the effectiveness of imagined movement on improving function.

The show recruited 7 people about 60 years old with sedentary lifestyles, tracking any change in right calf strength by having them perform a specific exercise in imagination for a month.  After a month of 15 minutes a day of imagined exercise to one leg the group had an average 8% strength increase in that calf, with one lady gaining a 33% increase.  Measured muscle size did not increase but there was an improvement by an average 20% in the recruitment of the muscles to do the exercise.  A shift from 50% to 70% of their available calf muscle being utilised for the foot press!  In simple language, their leg got smarter through imagined movement.

The volunteers first experienced how to actually do the strengthening movement, doing it in a seated reclined position with a straight right leg.   They used the forefoot to push a footplate away, an action that targets primarily the calf muscle.  As a baseline their calf muscle strength and size was measured and the calf muscle analysed to see which parts of the calf muscle were activated in the action.  The group had a month to practice this action in imagination, aiming to do 50 imagined movements in the allocated 15 minutes a day.  They all improved to varying degrees.

From a Feldenkrais perspective I would say this worked due to two factors – the subjects experienced the movement first and it was done lying down not standing in weight bearing.  The subjects were guided through doing the exercise a number of times first so the experience and sensation of what they were doing was clearer to recall when they rehearsed the movements in imagination later.  By doing the real and imagined movements reclining rather than standing the subjects were taken out of the position they habitually work the leg muscles in allowing them to learn a different way of using themselves.   Since we mostly use our calf muscles in the upright posture of standing and walking, habits of postural organisation can unwittingly interfere with the full use of the calf muscle as demonstrated by the fact that on average they utilised only ½ of the available muscle fibres.  Habits of calf muscle use are not strongly associated with lying down so in doing the imagined movements in this orientation they were not constrained by habit, allowing for more of the calf muscles and more of the whole person to learn to be involved in the task.

The use of imagined movement method is very familiar in Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lessons.  Having explored a way to improve a movement on one side of the body, physically doing many varied movement to invoke alternative easier ways to move, the other side can be “improved” in half the time by exploring movements mostly in imagination.

Exploring movements lying down is another hallmark of Feldenkrais®.   It is understood that having people lying down allows them to explore movement without the subconscious holding muscular habits of posture getting in the way.  The apprenticeship of our movement learning began as babies as we rolled around on the floor.

The imagination is not a dream like image of the action but rather a deep sensorial exploration of feeling what it would be like to actually begin the movement, the doing of the movement.  I would call it “embodied imagination”.  It’s what high-divers and gymnasts are doing when they rehearse the elements of a complex manoeuvre.

Moshe Feldenkrais was espousing the merits of imagined movement in his 1972 publication of Awareness Through Movement.  He writes; “Note how difficult it is to imagine how a movement will feel if you cannot carry it out” and “Improvement is greater through visualization than through action”.

The variation of results with the volunteers in the TV show would reflect the variable ability of the volunteers to sense themselves, both in the initial real movement and then as they rehearse the movements in imagination.  It is the diversity of self-awareness and ability to sense and learn that results in the wide diversity of function and ability of people of a similar age.

The Feldenkrais Method® is a learning pedagogy that leads to improved self-awareness and ability to sense which in turn leads to improved function, co-ordination and strength.  Rather than practice and repeat what you already know and trying harder physically, with improved self-awareness you can improve what you do by working smarter.

Although this show aired on SBS on Jan 17th it doesn’t appear to be available to watch on SBS On Demand yet.