The Pro Athlete Secret to Achieve All Your Health and Fitness Goals

Visualization can help you lose weight, eat better and start working out. Learn how to use your imagination to make your goals happen.

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

You might remember seeing a phrase like that on some motivational poster or pamphlet in your high school guidance counselor’s office. And while it’s definitely a little cheesy, it’s also completely true.

Vividly picturing something you want can be the first step toward making it happen — and it doesn’t just apply to winning the state championship or earning an A in organic chemistry.

You can harness the power of visualization to eat cleaner, get in better shape and improve your overall health. “Because imagery simply requires someone to close their eyes and try to imagine something, it can be applied to almost any task, across various situations, and in many environments,” says Jeffrey Graham, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University who researches mental imagery and exercise.

Here’s what makes the practice so effective — and how to make it work for you.

The Many Benefits of Visualization

You may already be familiar with the law of attraction, or the idea that like attracts like. Think positive thoughts, and you’ll draw more of the good stuff into your life. Think negative ones, and chances are, you’ll draw in more of the bad.

For instance, if you believe that you’ll be able to get into the habit of cooking more of your meals at home instead of ordering takeout, it’s a lot more likely to actually happen. But if conjuring up the energy to prep a clean dinner after a hectic day at work feels impossible, your chances for success are pretty slim.

What’s more, there’s plenty of science showing that visualizing yourself achieving a goal — whether it’s related to eating right, working out or something else entirely — can make you more likely to actually achieve it.

One study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that participants who used mental imagery in between leg press exercises performed the exercises with more strength compared to those who didn’t use imagery.

Imagery also helps build new skills. When beginner golfers participated in an imagery training program while receiving putting lessons, they spent more time practicing their swings and set higher goals for themselves compared to beginner golfers who didn’t receive imagery training, according to a study in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 2

Findings suggest that using mental imagery might even help you get into the habit of making healthier eating choices like upping your fruit consumption.

How Visualization Works

Of course, visualization isn’t magic (even though it might sound like it). So what’s actually going on inside your head to turn those mental pictures into tangible success?

Visualization works because your brain isn’t great at telling the difference between stuff that’s real and stuff you imagine. “That’s why you can get an upset stomach or break into a sweat when you think about something that pissed you off 10 years ago,” says Lauren Saracione-Herrera, certified Pilates instructor and host of the Love Is a Verb podcast.

Indeed, studies show that pulling up a mental picture activates similar regions in your brain that light up when you’re actually performing a physical task. And over time, that can make you get better at doing it for real. “The brain will ‘learn’ or become more efficient at executing the task being imagined, because the same neural pathways get ‘trained,’” says Graham.

Imagine Vivid Pictures And Strong Emotions

Successful visualization involves more than picturing yourself bicycling down a sunny street or sipping a green smoothie. It’s about being honest about where you are now in relation to your fitness or diet goals — and thinking hard about what you actually need to do in order to achieve them.

“When you’re visualizing, the whole idea is to evoke the feelings of accomplishing that goal,” says Saracione-Herrera. “The more you can get the feeling of what it’s like in that experience, the better.”

Here’s how to do it:

1. Get specific.

If you want to get into the habit of making clean breakfasts, imagine yourself pulling fruit from the refrigerator or freezer and adding it to your blender to make a smoothie, or chopping vegetables and cracking eggs to make an omelet. Can you picture the fruit whirring in the blender or smell the eggs cooking in the pan? Do you feel happy and energized?

Same goes if you’re thinking about something fitness-related: If running makes you uncomfortable and out of breath, can you imagine yourself running through your neighborhood — and pushing yourself through the pain or fatigue?

Or better yet, try actually going through the motions. For example, swing your tennis racket while you imagine hitting the ball. “Imagery practice will be most effective when it is as functionally equivalent as possible to actual physical performance,” Graham says 3.

2. Chuck the negative chatter.

Your thoughts are powerful stuff, so don’t think about failures or what-ifs. Even if you’re taking the time to visualize what you want, it’s less likely to actually happen if you still believe deep down that you’re not strong enough to follow through.

Similarly, make sure your visualization practice emphasizes the things you want, like moving more or having salad for lunch, not the things you’re trying to avoid, like sitting on the couch or eating a burger. “When people try to suppress a thought, the thought is more likely to make its way into consciousness,” Graham explains.

3. Get real about roadblocks.

Take a hard look at the things that are standing in your way right now, and figure out how to get past them. “Yes, you have to visualize. But you actually have to act in order to make things happen,” says Saracione-Herrera.

For instance, if your long commute makes it tough to cook dinner when you get home from work, can you make meals ahead of time and freeze them? If you have trouble working out because you don’t always have a babysitter, can you join a gym that offers childcare on-site?

4. Practice, practice, practice.

There’s no one answer for how often or how long you need to think about your mental picture. But both Graham and Sarcione-Herrera agree that the more regularly you visualize your goal, the more likely you are to achieve it.

So pick a time to visualize, like the first five minutes after you wake up or for five minutes before you go to sleep. And be consistent by sticking with it daily and picturing the same image. Just like with performing real tasks, Graham explain, “in order to see improvements, imagery needs to be practiced regularly and systematically.”

What Do YOU Think?

Have you ever used visualization, and how did it work? What goal are you going to visualize? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments.