Does Visualization Work for Weight Loss?

Well, it depends on how you visualize.

It is very popular in the self-help world to throw visualization around like it’s a given that it works.

We do know that high-level athletes use visualization very successfully in competitions. (Clarey, 2014) And we know that it can work to help people deal with anxiety. (Fredrico, et al, 2014)

The good news is that there is some compelling evidence that it does work for weight loss as well. (Solbrig, 2018) And it may even reduce snacking! (Andrade, 2016)

This is based on using a technique called “Functional Imagery Training”(FIT).

With FIT the person creates tailored imagery exercises to shift their mindset toward desiring to do the healthy habits. It changes from doing something because you “have to” to doing it because you want to”. It really brings mindfulness to the table (literally and figuratively).

And the WAY you visualize will determine how successful of a tool it is for you.

Work for weight loss

One study in 2011 showed that when people practice positive visualization it actually can inhibit their progress toward their goal! (Kappes, 2011)

The researchers found that focusing on the idealistic attainment of the goal reduced energy in those participants. The researchers inferred that it is this reduction in energy that can inhibit progress because people will not take the action needed to reach their goals.

This is contrary to popular belief about visualization. But the researchers called this type of positive visualization “fantasizing”.

They surmised that it would be much more effective to consider the path to our goals in a more realistic way; imagining not only what you would do to get there but also the obstacles and challenges that will stand in your way.

In other words, having a fantasy about easy success is NOT how to go about striving for your goals.

Also, it looks like it is much more effective to visualize your process rather than the outcome goal you desire. (Fredrico, et al, 2014)

What does this mean?

Well, rather than dreaming about that big day when you step on the scale and see those magic numbers you long for, it is more effective to visualize all the things you do in your life to make those magic numbers a reality.

An example would be setting aside 5-10 minutes a day where you visualize yourself practicing the habits that you think will help you lose weight.

You could visualize yourself waking up early, energized and ready for the day, and then taking a nice long walk. You could then imagine yourself cooking up a nice fresh, healthy breakfast.

Then see yourself practicing self-care like not snacking in between meals, taking breaks from work to step outside and move around a bit, going to bed at the right time for you, and setting up boundaries in your life so you are not doing too much.

You could also take a few minutes to visualize yourself exercising and having fun doing it. Go through the workout in detail, even imagine how you will feel before and after the workout.

And then why not throw in some images of yourself eating healthy meals and saying no to desserts without hesitation or resentment?

The key here is to focus on the processes. (Fredrico, et al, 2014) Try to get as real as you can, imagining how things will smell, feel, and look. How will you feel? Can you evoke that feeling right now?

That brings me to the last and most important point around visualization. Based on the study by Kappes and Oettingen, rather than creating an idealistic fantasy you should draw upon reality as much as you can.

What are the real obstacles and challenges? What will you do to overcome them? Do you need to make your schedule more realistic? Do you need outside support? Do you need to really prioritize you?

That is all part of the visualization.

And if you have had these healthy habits in the past draw upon that as much as possible.

So, if you used to work out a lot, you know what that feels like and looks like. Use your past history to visualize. It is so much easier and relatable than pulling these images out of thin air.

If you used to eat more veggies think about what you did and how it felt.

If you can’t readily find a past experience, try to push the truth a little. Don’t push it too much, just a little.

So if you never had the habit of working out perhaps you would draw on a time when you were active and just expand on that.

If you have never been successful at losing weight for good but you have had times when you really did practice true self-care, focus on that. What was that like? How did you feel? Visualize yourself in that frame of mind and “remember” that you have done this before and you can do it again.

If you are struggling with losing weight and would like to get on a strategy call with me to see if I can help point you in the right direction, click below.

Clarey, Christopher. Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training. New York Times, Feb 22, 2014.

Niño Fredrico L. Narvacan, Evangeline Atienza-Bulaquiña, and Lucille D. Evangelista. Effects of Visualization on Academic Performance of College Students. International Journal of Information and Education Technology, Vol. 4, No. 2, April 2014

Solbrig L, Whalley B, Kavanagh DJ, et al. Functional imagery training versus motivational interviewing for weight loss: a randomised controlled trial of brief individual interventions for overweight and obesity. Int J Obes (Lond). 2019;43(4):883-894. doi:10.1038/s41366-018-0122-1

Andrade J, Khalil M, Dickson J, May J, Kavanagh DJ. Functional Imagery Training to reduce snacking: Testing a novel motivational intervention based on Elaborated Intrusion theory. Appetite. 2016;100:256-262. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.02.015

Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology47(4), 719-729.

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