Personal trainers might be interested to learn about Functional Imagery Training (FIT), a new motivational intervention that utilizes mental visualizations to achieve personal goals.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”–Benjamin Franklin
Our brains are best wired to learn by being fully immersed in an experience versus reading or hearing about the same experience. However, only recently have scientists harnessed this power by involving and channeling mental imagery toward successful behavioral change. As personal trainers, we can employ this same methodology to help clients reach their goals.
The Root of the “Behavior Change” Challenge
In England, over half of the adult population is overweight and physically inactive. Sadly, a similar situation exists throughout many countries, including the US. According to statistics, a sustained weight loss of 5-10% of one’s bodyweight goes a long way towards reducing risk of health problems and potential costs associated with the long-term management of obesity. Technology has the potential to help each of us make lifestyle changes; however, there is a need for personalized motivational support in order to sustain long-term shifts in behavior.
Human behavior is at the root of “lifestyle conditions” such as heart disease and diabetes. Simply prescribing different behavior – a healthier diet or smoking cessation– is generally ineffective, and with good reason: changing habits requires motivation. Often individuals do not follow through with suggestions for change coming from doctors or therapists, even if they agree with the premise. As psychological science has shown, drug cravings exert a powerful dominance over other thoughts due to the power of mental imagery (I enjoy my smoke breaks at work); when channeled properly, that same process could make us work successfully towards new goals, despite significant obstacles.
Imagine a “New” You
FIT is based on the Elaborated Intrusion theory of desire, which describes the conscious experience of craving as a cycle of mental elaboration of an initial intrusive thought triggered by environmental cues. FIT works by training the habitual use of personalized, goal-directed mental imagery to plan behaviors, anticipate obstacles, and mentally try out solutions from previous successes. It uses imagery to increase desire and self-efficacy for change.
Delivered in the empathic and respectful client-centered spirit of Motivational Interviewing (MI), FIT allows participants to act as experts on themselves, thereby assisting them in identifying their own goals and related behaviors rather than trying to convince them to adopt a preset regimen.
The FIT protocol prescribes similar steps to MI:
- eliciting one’s incentives for change
- exploring discrepancies between core values and current behavior
- boosting self-efficacy
- developing specific action plans for implementing a commitment to change
At each step, FIT also invites participants to cultivate personalized imagery to maximize its emotional impact.
Once a person develops a plan for change, he becomes his own FIT therapist, supporting his unique autonomy and ability to respond to self-management challenges using imagery. Individuals learn how to develop the cognitive habit of practicing goal-related imagery in response to cues from a routine behavior, and further, to generate this imagery whenever motivation wanes.
Imagery encompasses more emotive than verbal thought; as such, vivid functional imagery sustains desire for change until each new behavior becomes a habit. Functional imagery also interferes with cravings when temptations occur, by competing for working memory with craving imagery. Detailed bouts of imagery grounded in experience allow one to anticipate problematic situations as well as plan and rehearse effective responses. Repeated successes in this endeavor increase self-efficacy over time.
The Science Behind Functional Imagery Training
In a recent study, overweight individuals who were instructed in FIT lost an average of five times more weight than those engaging in talk therapy alone. FIT encourages a client to come up with his own imagery of what change might look/feel like to him, and then how to achieve/maintain progress in the face of obstacles/challenges.
During the study, all participants received two sessions of their allocated intervention, which included an hour-long face-to-face session, followed by a second phone session lasting no longer than 45 minutes. “Booster calls” of up to 15 minutes in length were provided every two weeks for three months, dropping to once a month for another three months. Maximum contact time totaled four hours of individual consultation.
Participants were assessed at baseline, the end of the intervention phase (six months), and again at 12 months post-baseline. At the six-month mark, FIT participants had lost 4.11 kg and saw a reduction in waist circumference of 7.02 cm, compared to a 0.74 kg weight loss and a 2.72 cm reduction in waist circumference seen in the MI group.
Nixing the Snack Attack
In a related research study, scientists at the University of Plymouth tested how a single session of FIT plus a booster phone call might affect snacking. Forty-five participants who wanted to lose weight or reduce snacking were randomly assigned to receive a booster call immediately following the FIT session or after a two-week delay. High-sugar and high-fat snacks were recorded using timeline follow-back for the previous three days, at baseline, and then again at the two- and four-week mark.
At two weeks, snacking was lower in the immediate group than in the delayed group, and the reduction after FIT was replicated in the delayed group between two and four weeks. Frequencies of motivational thoughts about snack reduction rose following FIT for both groups, and this change correlated with reductions in snacking and weight loss. By showing that FIT can support changes in eating behaviors, these findings clearly indicate its potential as a motivational intervention for lifestyle weight management. It remains to be determined if combining FIT with diet and physical activity education would generate superior outcomes.
Imagery and Athletic Prowess
A study on soccer players designed to measure the effect of FIT on players’ grit, a personality trait associated with perseverance for a long-term goal, revealed interesting results. The participating players agreed that FIT had helped them improve performance on the soccer field. The researchers also noted that the impact of FIT seemed to continue beyond the interventions during the term of the research, with improvements after six weeks of intervention and significant gains after 12 weeks.
Scientists openly admit that a significant degree of subjectivity coupled with a plethora of unknowns exist when trying to measure things like grit and determination. FIT techniques, if applied consistently and by knowledgeable practitioners, should help create more meaningful data for future researchers. In the meantime, we can arm ourselves with knowledge on this fascinating subject, adding to our already full and varied “bag of tricks” for helping our clients succeed on all levels.
- Rhodes, Jonathan, Jon May, Jackie Andrade, and David Kavanagh. “Enhancing Grit Through Functional Imagery Training in Professional Soccer.” The Sport Psychologist, September 26, 2018, 1–6.