Visualization helps to reinforce behavioral change and leads to a healthier lifestyle

You are walking though the fitness center, and poke your head into the weight room, where a new instructor is working with a class of adults. They are learning to use the equipment and design their own personalized circuit training programs. Expecting loud music and the clanging of metal, you instead hear ocean waves and a soothing voice murmuring images of fitness improvement and exercise success. Bodies in repose are arranged across the floor. This is an exercise class?

The instructor is probably using a visualization exercise to teach students. These exercises typically begin with instructions to encourage physical relaxation and a letting go of our typical mental busy-ness, or “mind chatter.” Once we have turned down the volume of the part of our brain that tends to dominate our thinking, we are better able to access other brain areas, such as those that control motor coordination, come up with creative ideas, or send us subconscious messages about how we are doing.

Visualization, or guided imagery, can be used in the fitness center for many different purposes. First, it can be used to help people make a commitment to behavior change, such as sticking to their exercise programs, making dietary modifications, or quitting smoking. Visualization enhances goal setting. Clients who visualize themselves achieving important fitness goals, such as an increase in muscular strength, often experience improved motivation to work toward these goals.

Second, visualization can improve outlook and self-concept. It can change the way we talk to ourselves, see ourselves and perceive events around us. These, in turn, affect our behavior, including how we take care of ourselves. Third, visualization improves motor learning. We know that thinking can get in the way of performance. Words can take attention away from the performance feedback itself. Adults are more prone than children to let distracting thoughts interfere with skill acquisition. Those of us who have taught adults new skills have noticed that some clients are so busy talking, analyzing and evaluating that they can hardly pay attention to what their bodies are doing. Visualization seems to help nonverbal learning by providing a positive image, and by quieting mind chatter. It can also quiet fears, like “I’ll drown if I try that,” or, “I am much too old to be doing this.”

Lastly, visualization helps satisfy our need for mind/body unity. Many clients come to the fitness center to feel better, not only physically, but psychologically, as well. One of the reasons body/mind activities such as tai chi and yoga are growing in popularity is that they address our need for mental and spiritual involvement. But any type of physical activity that the client perceives as enjoyable and valuable confers psychological benefits. Visualization can reinforce and draw attention to the increase in psychological and spiritual well-being that can result from any physical activity program, from aquatics to weight training. What does the NCSA cost?

Incorporating visualization into your program

Sounds good, but how do you do it? The first step is to learn enough about visualization techniques to comfortably use them. The sources listed at the end of this article might be helpful if you are new to visualization. Most stress management textbooks have sections on relaxation exercises that are relevant to creative visualization. Many sports psychology texts have sections on visualization techniques for enhancing athletic performance.

The next step is to decide how you would like to incorporate visualization techniques into your class or program. What are your goals? How will visualization exercises fit into your class structure? If you are helping clients learn motor skills, such as those for tennis or swimming, a short exercise guiding students through a visualization of correct technique for the lesson of the day can be given at the beginning of the session. This can be done for a single client in a personal-training or private-lesson setting, or for a larger group. After a few minutes of instructions to increase relaxation and suggestibility, have clients imagine themselves executing a perfect backhand, flutter kick, or whatever. You describe the fine points of the skill, while they focus on the picture you are drawing with your words. This sets the stage for better concentration and performance.

Visualization to reinforce behavior change toward a healthier lifestyle is often done for five to 10 minutes at the end of a workout to take advantage of the post-exercise afterglow. The idea is to draw attention to how good it feels to exercise and take care of yourself, and to congratulate clients for their success in fulfilling their intention to exercise. Fitting relaxation and visualization in at the end of a vigorous workout can be difficult, however. Be sure clients have had enough time to cool down and are not hot and sweaty; otherwise, they will get chilled lying still. Encourage them to put on sweatshirts. Some clients complain that relaxing makes them tired — they want to walk out of class energized, not relaxed. If this is your group, you might deliver your visualization instructions during the stretching portion of the cool-down, relying on the exercise high and relaxation created by the workout to help your words have the intended effect. Affirmations such as, “Enjoy the strength you feel in your muscles … feel them letting go and relaxing as you stretch. Feel the energy flowing throughout your body, and let this energy carry you gracefully though the rest of your day. Let this good feeling remind you of the importance of taking care of yourself, so you will have the energy to enjoy the many things you do.” This type of abbreviated visualization serves as a “class benediction” that brings closure to the workout, focusing on exercise benefits. Use whatever words work for you and your group. Tape your instructions and listen to your voice, to be sure it is relaxed, soothing and confident.

Get clients’ feedback

Visualization may not work in every class. Talk to your clients, or have them fill out class evaluations to see how the visualization is being received. You may find that your group feels like time spent on visualization would be better spent exercising, but they may enjoy an occasional session as a change of pace — maybe once a month will suffice. Directions for using visualization at home can supplement your class work for those who want more.


NCSA Reviews. Ripoff or the real deal.

Dais, M., E.R. Eshelman & M. McKay. The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Press, 1988.

Girdano, D.A., G.S. Everly & D.E. Dusek. Controlling Stress and Tension. Englewood Dliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Greenberg, J.S. Comprehensive Stress Management. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1990.

Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

Albertus Magnus College. Athletic Recruiting.

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