A mental imagery technique is very useful in helping people lose weight.
Recently, Dr. Linda Solbrig and colleagues, from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, conducted a study.
Its main objective was to find out which types of motivational intervention would be the most effective in aiding weight loss efforts.
The scientists compared a fairly common talking therapy known as Motivational Interviewing (MI) with a novel type of motivational intervention called Functional Imagery Training (FIT).
In MI, the person embarking on a weight loss program receives counseling that allows them to find and voice what motivates them to change (in this case, shedding excess weight).
With FIT, however, the person who wishes to lose wight is taught to fully visualize, in as realistic a way 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.
"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 — however much they might agree with it," explains Dr. Solbrig.
"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 adds.
The researchers wanted to see which approach — MI or FIT — would bring about the best results for the participants. The study's findings appear in the International Journal of Obesity.
Talking therapy vs. functional imagery
Dr. Solbrig and team recruited 141 participants with body mass indexes (BMIs) of at least 25. Current guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) say that a person with a BMI of 25 is deemed overweight, and a person with a BMI of 30 or over could be diagnosed with obesity.
Of the total number of participants, 55 underwent MI and 59 underwent FIT. They all participated in two sessions of the intervention that had been allocated to them: one face-to-face, and one by phone.
The participants also received follow-up calls every couple of weeks for a period of 3 months, and then once per month for another 3 months. The maximum contact time for each person was 4 hours over the entire study period.
Assessments took place at baseline, after 6 months (at the end of the intervention), and then again after 12 months from baseline.
The researchers found that the participants who underwent FIT had lost five times more weight, on average, compared with those who underwent MI. Specifically, participants in the FIT group lost 4.3 centimeters more around their waists over 6 months than those in the MI group.
This amounts to an average of 4.11 kilograms lost by individuals in the FIT group, compared with an average of 0.74 kilograms lost by those in the MI group.
Moreover, those who underwent the FIT intervention reported still losing excess weight even after the 6-month intervention period. At the 12-month mark, participants in the FIT group had lost 6.44 kilograms, on average, and those in the MI group had lost only 0.67 kilograms, on average.
"It's fantastic that people lost significantly more weight on this intervention, as, unlike most studies, it provided no diet/physical activity advice or education," as Dr. Solbrig points out. "People were completely free in their choices and supported in what they wanted to do, not what a regimen prescribed."
A potent multisensory technique
What makes FIT so much more effective than MI, the specialists believe, is that it uses multisensory imagery, asking people to imagine everything about their enhanced experiences following weight loss — from how these might look and feel to how they might taste and smell.
An optional app to support the participants in picturing these scenarios was also made available to them.
"We started with taking people through an exercise about a lemon [regarding the FIT technique]," says Dr. Solbrig, adding, "We asked them to imagine seeing it, touching it, juicing it, drinking the juice, and juice accidently 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, and smell] like?' and encourage them to use all of their senses."
Dr. Linda Solbrig
This technique might be particularly effective in the case of people who may find it truly difficult to keep up their motivation for losing weight.
For example, one study participant who was allocated to the FIT group notes that it allowed her to really stay focused on her reasons for embarking upon her weight loss journey.
"I lost my mum at 60, and being 59 myself with a variety of health problems, my motivation was to be there for my daughter. I kept thinking about wearing the dress I'd bought for my daughter's graduation, and on days I really didn't feel like exercising, kept picturing how I'd feel," the participant explains.
"I've gone from 14 stone to 12 stone 2," she adds, "and have managed to lower the dosage I need for my blood pressure tablets. I'd still like to lose a touch more, but I'm so delighted with the mindset shift."