Diet and lifestyle changes are necessary for weight loss, but is there anything else we can do to increase the positive effects? A new study demonstrates how a simple mental imagery technique can significantly increase weight loss.

Dr. Linda Solbrig and her research group at Plymouth University in the UK recently conducted a study on this topic.

The study’s primary goal was to identify the forms of motivational intervention most likely to facilitate successful weight loss.

The researchers contrasted Functional Imagery Training with the more conventional talking therapy known as Motivational Interviewing (MI) (FIT).

MI involves counselling sessions during which the person starting a weight loss programme identifies and discusses the factors that are most important to them in making this change (in this case, shedding excess weight).

However, with FIT, the person who wishes to lose weight is taught to fully visualise, in as realistic a manner as possible, achieving their goal of weight loss and what that would allow them to do or experience that they are unable to do or experience at present because of their current weight.

Dr. Solbrig says, “Most people agree that in order to lose weight, you need to eat less and exercise more, but in many cases, people simply aren’t motivated enough to heed this advice.”

“So FIT comes in with the key aim of encouraging someone to come up with their own imagery of what change might look and feel like to them, how it might be achieved and kept up, even when challenges arise,” she says.

The study’s goal was to compare the effectiveness of MI and FIT in helping participants. The results of the study can be found in the International Journal of Obesity, a reliable source.

A comparison of talk therapy and functional imagery

For their study, Dr Solbrig and his colleagues enlisted the help of 141 people with BMIs of at least 25. According to the most up-to-date recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), a person is considered overweight if their body mass index (BMI) is 25, and if their BMI is 30 or higher, they may be classified as obese.

55 participants had MI and 59 had FIT. Each individual met with a therapist in person once and over the phone twice as part of the intervention.

In addition, the participants were contacted every two weeks for the first three months, and then once a month for the following three months. During the course of the study, no two participants had more than a four-hour combined total of contact time.

Pre-intervention (at the start of the study), post-intervention (after 6 months), and 12-month follow-up assessments were conducted.

It was discovered that people who underwent FIT lost an average of five times more weight than those who underwent MI. Over the course of 6 months, those in the FIT group lost an average of 4.3 centimetres more from their waist circumference than those in the MI group.

The average weight loss in the FIT group was 4.11 kilogrammes, while the average weight loss in the MI group was only 0.74 kilogrammes.

Those who participated in the FIT intervention also noted continuing weight loss after the initial 6-month period ended. Participants in the FIT group lost an average of 6.44 kilogrammes by the 12-month mark, while those in the MI group lost an average of only 0.67 kilogrammes.

Dr. Solbrig notes that, in contrast to most studies, this one “provided no diet/physical activity advice or education,” so the results are all the more impressive. “Everyone was free to do whatever they wanted to do and had full support for their decisions,” rather than following a strict regimen.

Effective use of multiple senses

Experts believe FIT’s superior efficacy can be attributed to its multisensory imagery, in which participants are encouraged to imagine not only the visual and auditory benefits of losing weight but also the gustatory and olfactory ones.

Participants were also given the option to use an accompanying app to help them visualise these situations.

Dr Solbrig says, “We started by taking people through an exercise about a lemon [regarding the FIT technique] to emphasise how emotional and tight to our physical sensations imagery is; we asked them to imagine seeing it, touching it, juicing it, drinking the juice, and juice accidentally squirting in their eye.”

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, and smell] like?’ and encourage them to use all of their senses.”

 

Dr. Linda Solbrig

In the case of people who have a very hard time maintaining their motivation to lose weight, this strategy may prove especially helpful.

One person in the study who was randomly assigned to the FIT group says it helped her remember why she wanted to lose weight in the first place.

My mother passed away at age 60, and despite my own health issues (I’m 59), being there for my daughter was my driving force. “When I didn’t feel like working out, I’d picture myself in the dress I’d bought for my daughter’s graduation, and that would motivate me to work out,” says the participant.

She continues, “I’ve gone from 14 stone to 12 stone 2 and have been able to reduce the amount of blood pressure medication I take.” I’m happy with the shift in perspective, but I still want to lose a little bit more weight.

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