Trish Bradbury was reading the paper one morning in 2016 when she saw an advert for a weight-loss study.
At 5ft 3in and 14st, the 59-year-old retired dispensing assistant from Plympton, Devon, felt weighed down by more than a few extra pounds.
She was also coming close to the age her own mother had been when she died of a heart attack.
‘I didn’t want history to repeat itself,’ says Trish. ‘My mum died suddenly when I was 21. She was in the bathroom when she collapsed — my dad kicked the door down, but it was too late.’
Would you try it? Functional Imagery Training harnesses the imagination to motivate people
Throughout her 20s and early 30s, Trish weighed around 10st 7lb, but reached 14st at her heaviest. ‘My weight started to go up after being pregnant with my daughter, Stephanie, now 24.
‘I have a sweet tooth and would nibble on chocolate, cake, sweets, biscuits — and the pounds crept on. I would also comfort eat when I was stressed.’
Trish yo-yo dieted for years in failed attempts to slim down, and her weight led to acid reflux and knee pain.
‘When I saw that ad, I had already decided it was time to take my health in hand,’ she says. ‘I wanted to be there for my daughter.’
The study was based at the University of Plymouth and involved an approach called Functional Imagery Training (FIT). FIT harnesses the imagination to help people stay motivated — they are taught to use ‘multi-sensory’ visualisations to see themselves succeeding, creating a shift in attitude so they exercise and eat healthily because they want to, rather than feel they have to.
FIT proved very effective for Trish, who lost 2st and 10in from her waist on the year-long trial. Other participants lost on average a stone and 3½in, according to the study results, which have been published in the International Journal Of Obesity.
So what does it involve? At an initial face-to-face session with a counsellor, you talk about what needs to change in your life — in this case, weight loss — what barriers might come up; and what you would like the outcome to be.
YOUR counsellor then teaches you to use mental imagery.
Weigh to go! Participants lost on average a stone and 3½in, according to the study results, which have been published in the International Journal Of Obesity
‘We first ask people to imagine a lemon,’ says Jon May, a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth and co- creator of FIT.
‘See it, touch it, squeeze the juice from it, taste the juice and accidentally squirt some in your eye (this helps you imagine the physical sensations).’
Once you’re confident with this image, close your eyes and conjure up an image of the weight-loss outcome you’d like to achieve, and fill it with sights, sounds, smells and feelings.
It’s not just seeing yourself thinner, but perhaps imagining something you’ll be able to do once you’ve lost weight. You could be confidently striding into the gym or running around with grandchildren.
For Trish, it was imagining attending her daughter’s graduation a year later, wearing an outfit that showed off her figure.
‘In my first session with Linda [Solbrig, a research fellow who led the study], I learned to bring my imagery to life,’ she says. ‘A large part of my imagery was feeling the happiness of being at the event and not dead from heart disease.’
The results of the study were impressive. The 141 participants were split into two groups — one used FIT with motivational interviewing (MI), a form of counselling; the other group had MI only.
During the first six months, everyone had 15-minute follow-up phone calls every two weeks. After that, there was no contact until the 12-month point. After six months, the FIT group had lost on average 9lb and 2 ¾in from their waists, compared with 1.6lb and 1in in the MI group.
Synced: Researchers found that mental imagery can distract from a craving and cement motivation towards a goal
People in the FIT group continued to lose weight and reduce their waist circumference, losing on average 1 st and 3 ½in in total, but those in the MI group did not, showing that FIT helps people sustain motivation.
‘This is because they’re taught to become their own therapist,’ says Professor May.
FIT was developed after two decades of research by Professors Jon May and Jackie Andrade from the University of Plymouth, and Professor David Kavanagh from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.
It was devised to help combat the intrusive thoughts that come with substance addiction and has since been shown in small studies to reduce snacking and increase gym attendance.
I didn’t want history to repeat itself. My mum died suddenly when I was 21. She was in the bathroom when she collapsed — my dad kicked the door down, but it was too late.
The researchers found that mental imagery can distract from a craving and cement motivation towards a goal. Creating the image and feeling the associated sensations is demanding for the brain.
‘This strengthens the motivational thoughts related to the image,’ says Professor May.
It’s important not to choose something negative. ‘Like the scary pictures on a cigarette packet, it might work when you’re forced to look at it, but it’s not something you’ll want to revisit.’
The key is to practise your imagery briefly every day so it becomes easier to access in times of temptation.
Unlike other interventions, how you reach your weight-loss goal is your decision — no advice on diet or exercise is given.
‘Any kind of healthy changes will result in weight loss,’ says Professor May. ‘The role of FIT is to strengthen motivation, not dictate how you get there.’
Trish opted to cut her daily calorie intake to 1,400 and start walking every day, counting her steps with a Fitbit Tracker.
‘I cut down my portion sizes and sugar consumption,’ she says. ‘It felt much more sustainable than the crash diets I’d been on because I could support myself whenever I was tempted to eat rubbish.’
After a year, Trish had a final session with Linda and wore a black two-piece suit she had been unable to wear for years. ‘It felt great to have lost that weight in a positive way, and I was so excited to be back in clothes I thought I’d never wear again,’ she says.
Soon after, she went to her daughter’s graduation ceremony, wearing a beautiful navy dress and feeling proud — of her daughter and of herself.
‘I’m going to lose more weight,’ says Trish, ‘but what I’ve lost so far has already improved my health. I’ve been able to halve the medication I take for my reflux, and my knees feel much better.’
The FIT scientists are running workshops to teach professionals how to use it and have created an app called Goal In Mind.
Dr Ian Campbell, a GP and obesity expert, thinks FIT has a positive role to play. ‘Weight loss almost always proves difficult,’ he says. ‘Eating less and moving more sounds simple enough, but the same psychological drivers that lead to poor lifestyle in the first place continue to dominate.
‘Any effective approach to weight loss has to include some form of psychological therapy. What FIT does is bring about emotional and psychological change, so the weight loss is better maintained.
‘Incorporating methods such as FIT into a traditional weight-loss strategy could really help people regain control of their health.’
For more information, visit plymouth.ac.uk/research/psychology/functional-imagery-training
ENGLISH CHILDREN ARE FATTER THAN EVER, OFFICIAL FIGURES SHOW
English children are fatter than ever as official data yesterday revealed a record number of 10 to 11-year-olds are now severely obese.
NHS figures showed the proportion of children who are severely obese has risen by more than a third since 2007.
It is now at 4.2 per cent, the highest ever level – 24,437 children in England fall into the fattest possible category.
The London borough of Brent has the highest level of severely obese children, with a rate of 7.8 per cent – more than five times higher than 1.5 per cent in the lowest, Richmond upon Thames.
And more than a fifth of children of school-leaving age are obese, as well as 9.5 per cent of four to five-year-olds, which experts have called ‘totally unacceptable’.
Childhood obesity rates in the most deprived areas are more than double that of those in the least deprived areas, the figures also show.
Data from NHS Digital has today revealed more than 24,000 10 to 11-year-old children in England are severely obese, and the problem is worse in poorer areas (map showing the percentage of severely obese Year 6 children in local authorities across England)