A reference in the Big Bang Theory to thinking abut exercise being as good as doing it led to me finding this research
We tested the hypothesis that the nervous system, and the cortex in particular, is a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness and that a high level of corticospinal inhibition is an important neurophysiologic factor regulating force generation.
A group of healthy individuals underwent 4-weeks of wrist-hand immobilization to induce weakness. Another group also underwent 4-weeks of immobilization, but they also performed mental imagery of strong muscle contractions five days/wk. Mental imagery has been shown to activate several cortical areas that are involved with actual motor behaviors- including premotor and M1 regions. A control group, who underwent no interventions, also participated in this study. Before, immediately after, and one-week following immobilization, we measured wrist flexor strength, VA, and the cortical silent period (SP; a measure that reflect corticospinal inhibition quantified via transcranial magnetic stimulation).
Immobilization decreased strength 45.1±5.0%, impaired VA 23.2±5.8%, and prolonged the SP 13.5±2.6%. Mental imagery training, however, attenuated the loss of strength and VA by ~ 50% (23.8±5.6% and 12.9±3.2% reductions, respectively), and eliminated prolongation of the SP (4.8±2.8% reduction). Significant associations were observed between the changes in muscle strength and VA (r=0.56) and SP (r=-0.39).
These findings suggest neurological mechanisms, most likely at the cortical level, contribute significantly to disuse-induced weakness, and that regular activation of the cortical regions via imagery attenuates weakness and VA by maintaining normal levels of inhibition.