The Power of Thought: Does Thinking About Exercise Give You More Motivation to Do It?

The Power of Thought: Does Thinking About Exercise Give You More Motivation to Do It?

(Last Updated On: March 31, 2019)

Need to get motivated or take your workout to a higher level? Find out how to use the power of thought and visualization to enjoy exercise more, feel more motivated, break through strength plateaus and improve your exercise performance.

Even if you love to exercise there are probably days where you could use a kick in the butt – a little extra motivation to get up off the couch. According to a new study, one way to get motivated is to think about exercising. Yes, it seems that thoughts have the power to motivate when you’re feeling a little lazy.

Think about Exercise to Get Motivated

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire asked 200 college students to fill out a questionnaire. The students thought they were filling out a questionnaire on college activity choices. During the questionnaire, the researchers asked half the students to think about a past exercise experience – good or bad. The other group wasn’t asked to do this. The students tracked their exercise activity over the subsequent days.

The result? The students that thought about past experiences exercising clocked more hours of exercise time over the following days than those that didn’t. Students that thought about a positive exercise experience exercised more than those that thought about negative experiences, although both exercised more than the control group.

We can all use an occasional kickstart to get motivated to exercise. As this study shows, thinking about exercise, forming a picture in your mind of actually doing it may help you crawl out of bed to exercise when you feel like sleeping in. Research suggests that visualization is a powerful tool for getting motivated and for getting the most out of a workout.

The Power of Visualization

Some of the best athletes use visualization and mental imagery to get motivated and perform better. Whether you feel like it or not, you can imagine in your mind going through the motions of exercising and enjoying the experience. When you envision a successful outcome in your mind you’re more likely to be motivated to turn that vision into a reality. Seeing yourself doing it actually primes your muscles and gets them ready to perform.

How powerful is visualization? Some research suggests visualizing weight training movements in your mind can strengthen your muscles in the absence of movement. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation divided 30 adults into groups. First, they measured the muscle strength in their little finger muscles and their biceps. Then one group was asked to imagine exercising their biceps. A second group was told to exercise the muscles in their little fingers through the power of imagination. The third group did neither. The adults did these mental exercises for 15 minutes daily most days of the week for a period of three months. During this time, they did no actual weight training.

What was the outcome? The group that did imaginary finger exercises improved their strength by 53% while the biceps group showed a 13% improvement in biceps strength – without lifting a single weight. Why might this be? Your brain is very much involved in building strength when you work out. It’s your brain that sends the messages to your muscles to tell them to contract. Repeatedly thinking about contracting a muscle group activates and reinforces the neural pathways that cause that muscle to contract even in the absence of training. The same may be true in terms of motivation. When you use mental imagery to visualize working out it reinforces motivational pathways that make you jump out of bed to exercise rather than sleep in or stay on the couch.

Use Visualization to Improve Your Exercise Performance

You can use this same principle to break through plateaus in your training. When you reach a point where you’re no longer making strength gains, spend a few minutes before your workout seeing yourself lifting that heavier weight. Envision going through the motions and executing the movement flawlessly. Then turn your vision into reality. Once you see yourself doing it in your mind a few times, you’ll feel like you’ve already done it. Visualization can help you gain greater confidence in your abilities and even help improve your form when you train

Using Visualization in Your Own Fitness Training

There are several ways to use visualization. Spend ten minutes before a workout thinking about what you want to achieve during your training session. See yourself going through the motions and reaching whatever goal you’ve set for yourself. If you work out first thing in the morning, you can do this when you first wake up while you’re still lying in bed. You can also use visualization during a workout. When you’re trying to lift a heavier weight or improve your form, rehearse the movement in your mind before doing it. See yourself lifting a heavier weight or going lower on push-ups and then put that thought into action.

The more clearly you visualize and the more senses you incorporate into the vision the better. Imagine the feel of the weight in your hand and your body heat rising as you prepare to lift. Feel the strength flowing into your arms or legs. Hear the sounds of the imaginary applause as you complete a rep using a weight heavier than you’ve ever lifted before. See yourself smiling in victory. You can apply this technique to almost any workout or sport.

The Bottom Line?

Your mind and muscles are connected. Use this to your advantage when you want to get motivated or improve your performance. Visualization can also help you build the mental toughness and focus you need to push through a hard workout. Don’t underestimate the power of your mind. Use it to your advantage.



Medical News Today. “Take a Trip Down Memory Lane to the Gym: Using Memories to Motivate”

Kravitz, Len. “Exercise Motivation: What Starts and Keeps People Exercising?”

J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jun;24(6):1680-7.

Neuropsychologia. 2004;42(7):944-56.


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