Photography by Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas
Most people probably know that in order to lose weight they need to eat less and exercise more, as a basic rule. Yet, without the motivation, most people don't do any of that and they have a hard time even when they seemingly try.
However, overweight people who used a new motivational intervention called Functional Imagery Training (FIT) were shown to lose an average of five times more weight than those using talking therapy alone in research conducted at the University of Plymouth and Queensland University of Technology1.
In addition, users of FIT lost 4.3cm more around their waist circumference in six months – and continued to lose weight after the intervention had finished.
FIT uses multisensory imagery to explore these changes by teaching clients how to elicit and practice motivational imagery themselves. Everyday behaviors and optional app support are used to cue imagery practice until it becomes a cognitive habit.
The research was led by Dr Linda Solbrig from the School of Psychology and involved 141 participants, who were allocated either to FIT or Motivational Interviewing (MI). The latter is a technique that sees a counselor support someone to develop, highlight and verbalize their need or motivation for change, and their reasons for wanting to change.
Dr Solbrig said, “We started with taking people through an exercise about a lemon. We asked them to imagine seeing it, touching it, juicing it, drinking the juice and the juice accidentally squirting in their eye, to emphasize how emotional and tight to our physical sensations imagery is.
From there we are able to encourage them to fully imagine and embrace their own goals. Not just ‘imagine how good it would be to lose weight’ but, for example, ‘what would losing weight enable you to do that you can’t do now? What would that look/sound/smell like?’, and encourage them to use all of their senses."
Professor Jackie Andrade, Professor in Psychology at the University of Plymouth, is one of the co-creators of FIT, and she explains: “FIT is based on two decades of research showing that mental imagery is more strongly emotionally charged than other types of thought.
It uses imagery to strengthen people’s motivation and confidence to achieve their goals, and teaches people how to do this for themselves, so they can stay motivated even when faced with challenges. We were very excited to see that our intervention achieved exactly what we had hoped for and that it helped our participants achieve their goals and most importantly to maintain them.”
As for results, after six months people who used the FIT intervention lost an average of 4.11 kg (9 lbs), compared with an average of 0.74 kg (1.6 lbs) among the MI group. After 12 months – six months after the intervention had finished – the FIT group continued to lose weight, with an average of 6.44 kg (14.2 lbs) lost compared with 0.67 kg (1.5 lbs) in the MI group.
Developing Grit for Athletic Performance
A study2 on soccer players was designed to measure the effect of FIT on players' grit, their personality trait associated with perseverance for a long-term goal. It's an interesting tact and hints at some of the broader performance opportunities for FIT because grit is often considered to be an innate gift of an individual and not something that can be applied. In other words, there is some debate as to whether your environment can influence your grit.
As for the results, again, the participating football players agreed that FIT had helped them improve their performance. The researchers also noted that the impact of FIT seemed to continue beyond the interventions during the term of the research with improvements after 6 weeks of intervention and significant gains after 12 weeks.
There's a high degree of subjectivity and a lot of unknowns when it comes to trying to measure things like grit and determination. FIT techniques, if applied by consistently and by knowledgeable practitioners, should help create more consistent patterns of data for researchers.
There is, obviously, a lot to be said for connecting visual cues in your mind to triggers in behavior. We kind of take it for granted that visualization outcomes may be a way of facilitating the creation of those outcomes. However, if we find methodologies that can lead to direct measurements of the efficacy of imagery techniques we might avoid the cliches and come up with solid ways to overcome inherent motivational blockers.
It's one thing to talk about the importance of your mental approach to performance and applying those principles in a structured way that leads to tangible results.
1. Linda Solbrig, Ben Whalley, David J. Kavanagh, Jon May, Tracey Parkin, Ray Jones, Jackie Andrade. "Functional imagery training versus motivational interviewing for weight loss: a randomised controlled trial of brief individual interventions for overweight and obesity." International Journal of Obesity, 2018
2. 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.