In our quest for healthier living, aim for “mini-achievements”: small, manageable lifestyle changes every day, built slowly over time. The glorified Hollywood stories of the unfit permanently redefining themselves and their bodies after an intensive month-long boot-camp are unrealistic at best and completely dangerous at worst. Most successful journeys toward long-lasting health are achieved when one small accomplishment is made, which allows for another small accomplishment, and another, until the stack of small accomplishments amounts to something significant. The goal is to focus on small changes and build on those – things like adjusting the time of day during which you exercise to accommodate your natural rhythms, or choosing which exercises you do first in a workout. Another small change that could have potentially powerful effects is choosing the clothing we wear while exercising.
Imagine walking into a job interview, and consider the influence that your physical presentation has on your confidence. Chances are your mood is more positive, and your prospects of interviewing well are more optimistic if you arrive in a nicely-fitting, stylish outfit compared with one that fits poorly and was last worn by your great uncle. Our confidence isn’t raised only because of the positive impression the nice clothes may make on the interviewer, but because of the feeling the clothing elicits within us; what we wear seems to affect how we think about ourselves, and therefore shapes our mood.
Turns out there is truth behind this notion. A study several years ago found that subjects who wore a white coat believed to belong to a doctor were more attentive and perceptive in several experimental tasks than those who wore the same coat believed to belong to a painter. Clothing puts us into a unique psychological state, depending on the meaning of the outfit. It’s no wonder we feel stronger in a gladiator suit, more powerful in a police uniform, and more suave in a tuxedo.
With this in mind, answering the question “How do I want to feel for my workout?” with “Let me start by choosing the right outfit” doesn’t seem terribly far-fetched. After all, we want to enter into the psychological state of expert exerciser – not novice – and selecting the right clothing can help get us there. If the right gear can add even a smidge of motivation to the workout, why not embrace it?
The importance of all this lies in the fact that how we feel ultimately affects how we perform. A happy mood typically leads to greater resilience, more creativity (which may benefit us in a workout setting) and a heightened willingness to embrace challenging stuff. A depressed mood, in contrast, lends itself to slower reaction time, diminished persistence and less willingness to undergo pain and adversity. (My father-in-law, a biking enthusiast, claimed recently that he had the best ride of his life while wearing his new pair of WOLACO compression shorts. His hamstrings didn’t magically enlarge, nor did his aerobic endurance improve compared to his last ride. He wore an outfit that made him feel more like a cyclist than ever before, and this change in perception affected real change in how he felt and ultimately in his athletic performance.)
The relationship between clothing and our mood works the other way, too. Research shows that what people choose to wear is heavily dependent on their emotional state. That is, not only does our choice of outfit affect our mood, but it’s affected by our mood. We’re more likely to wear a favorite dress or pair of shoes when we’re feeling joy than sadness.
Since there is such a strong connection between clothing and our mood state, psychologists suggest we should wear clothing that we associate with happiness – even when we’re not feeling happy.
Happy clothes – those that make us feel good and athletic – look different for everyone. Here are some general guidelines as to what this may look like:
- High quality: this may at first seem like a superficial requirement. However take this example: for many, the presence of perspiration sends us the message that it may be time to slow down and take it easy, even though that may not really be the case (it is part of the human condition to avoid discomfort and vulnerability). A well-made workout shirt that absorbs moisture better than an average cotton t-shirt is likely to delay the presence of major perspiration, which may allow for a more intense workout for a longer duration. The quality of clothing can literally shape our body’s response to exercise, which influences our perception of how hard we’re working.
- Figure enhancing: Gyms are full of mirrors. When you think you look good, you’ll push the intensity of the workout.
- Bright and colorful: Colors have an effect on our mood. Surround yourself with bright and vibrant colors and, without consciously knowing why, your outlook turns sunnier.
Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP