Can Fashion Make You Fitter?
Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S.
I remember the first day Briana showed up for our training session. She was overweight and apprehensive about going to the gym. She would come to our sessions wearing an oversized baggy t-shirt and a pair of old grey tattered sweatpants to hide her body. She was afraid people would judge her. The gym can be an intimidating place and her feelings are not uncommon.
Everyone feels intimidated when they try something new and exercising is no exception, but
Briana worked hard. She ate well, followed directions, and every week the numbers on the scale went down. A miraculous transformation occurred over those few months of training. As she lost weight and felt more confident, she traded in her sweatpants for some technicolor leggings and her t-shirt for a fitted tank top.
In the words of Miuccia Prada - "What you wear is how you present yourself to the world”.
Briana was presenting a woman who chooses kale over cake, squats instead of sofas, and ambition over ambivalence. Clothes have always carried symbolic meaning and have long shaped the way others perceive us. However, many studies show that the clothes we wear can also affect our behaviors and performance. Which begs the question -Can clothes affect our performance in the gym? Can it help us make healthier decisions?
Can fashion ultimately make us fitter?
When I put on a suit I feel like I have the unflappable confidence and cool charisma of 007. When my girlfriend wears heels, she feels powerful and sexy (I agree). When Cinderella adorns her gown and crystal slippers she feels worthy of a prince. ‘The Makeover’ is a common trope used in movies and books to show how a physical transformation can impact the personality and behavior of the character. Clothes often play a critical role in the transformation.
Researchers call the ability that clothes have to influence a wearers psychology and behavior “enclothed cognition”. Wearing clothes causes people to “embody” the clothing and its symbolic meaning, and by extension this embodiment influences the wearer's psychological processes. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology aimed to show this effect in person.
Researchers wanted to see whether wearing a lab coat would improve performance on an attention-related task. In the first experiment, the group wearing the lab coat performed significantly better on the test, making half the mistakes of the group that wore normal clothes. In the second experiment both groups wore the white coat except researchers told the first group the coat was a doctor's lab coat while telling the second group it was a painter's smock. The group who thought it was a doctor's coat outperformed the group that thought it was a painter's smock.
The Idea of enclothed cognition can explain why men who wear formal business attire negotiated more profitable deals than those who wore formal attire (Kraus & Mendes, 2014), why people who wear large dark hoods and capes are more likely to administer electric shocks (Zimbardo, 1969), while those dressed in nurses attire are less likely to administer shocks (Johnson & Downing, 1979). It can also explain why sports teams that wear black uniforms are more aggressive than teams wearing nonblack uniforms (Frank & Gilovich, 1988), and ultimately it can explain how choosing the right gym attire can help you become fitter.
So what should you consider when selecting the right gym outfit?
Comfort and confidence
I run a business whose goal is to not just train people but to educate them. We measure our success not by the results our clients see when they train with us, but by how well they do when they go out on their own. We’ve learned that to get someone to workout on their own it is crucial that they feel both comfortable and confident when they go to the gym.
A gym is an intimidating place and if a person feels uncomfortable or lacks confidence in their ability to perform an exercise - or stick to a program - then they will inevitably fail. Having the right outfit can go a long way in helping a client feel they belong in the gym.
When choosing what to wear your outfit should first be comfortable - both physically and emotionally. I’ll go more into the physically comfortable part later but let's not overlook the importance of feeling emotionally comfortable in your clothes. Clothes that leave you feeling self-conscious will only detract from your workout and your willingness to go back to the gym.
So before you pick an outfit you should figure out what you are most comfortable wearing. These are just a few questions worth asking -
Do you prefer clothes to be looser or form fitting?
Do you feel most comfortable wearing a Sports bra, Tank top, T-shirt, Long Sleeve, or a pull over?
When choosing bottoms do you prefer sweatpants, Leggings or tight, or shorts? If so how short?
How do you feel about colors? Do you prefer clothes that are bright and vibrant or clothes that are dark and monocolor?
Comfort is important when choosing an outfit, but the clothes you choose should also make you feel good.
I perform most of my workouts in old t-shirts and gym shorts but when I want to step my game up I pull out a tank top or a fitted athletic shirt. The fit makes me feel good and every time I pass by a mirror while wearing it I like what I see. It highlights the progress I'm making and inspires me to give that extra effort during my next set.
I implore you to find an outfit you love. One you look forward to wearing. One that when you look in the mirror, it gives you that " I'm fine and I know it" feeling.
Fun clothing and exercise fact: Legendary bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger during his career felt his calves were under par. He famously cut the lower part of all his pants off so that he couldn't hide them. He used the sight of his ‘puny’ calves to motivate him to train harder and eventually win 7 Mr. Olympia’s.
Dress for your future self
When I meet with a new client, I often use the following goal setting exercise: I tell them to close their eyes and imagine their ideal self. I ask them to describe that person in as much detail as they can. I ask them what that person does, how that person feels and what attributes they embody. I ask what others say about them and what there day is like. I ask about everything down to what that person eats, sleeps and even wears.
To see is to believe and what the mind believes the body will achieve.
I follow up on this exercise by asking the person what steps they can take towards living that life. One of the easiest steps someone can take is changing what they wear. like an actor getting into character. The science shows that the clothes we wear can affect both our mental and physical performance but to do so requires that the clothes have a symbolic meaning to us. So if your outfit symbolizes a fit athletic you (or a fit role model of yours) then it will help you make decisions that a fit athletic you would make
I want my client to embody the person they want to be and dressing the part is an easy place to start. Like an actor getting into character you embody your future self until eventually you are that future self.
Fashion is great but your athletic attire should also be functional. We've spent a lot of time on how clothes can improve your mental state but what about their physical affect? Just as you have clothes for when it's hot, cold, or when you're going out on the town, there are clothes that are specifically designed for working out. Some of their unique features include
Moisture-wicking - sweat is a natural and inevitable part of exercise which is why you want your athletic clothes designed with a breathable quick drying fabric. Moisture-wicking fabrics help to keep you cool by wicking sweat off the body and giving it a place to evaporate quickly. It keeps you cool, dry and helps prevent unwanted chafing.
Temperature - Fitness apparel comes with a variety of insulating options. On a hot day you’ll want to choose a fabric that is light and breathable to keep you cool. On a cool day, you'll want a thicker fabric such as a wool blend to keep the heat in
Fit - Your clothes should fit your body. They shouldn’t be so tight to make you feel uncomfortable or limit your range of motion nor should they be so loose where it may get in the way, get snagged on an item, or rub you the wrong way.
Women should consider fit closely when buying a sports bra. Excessive bouncing or movement can damage the many small ligaments of the breast so it's important that your sports bra will limit the amount of motion depending on the activity. As a rule of thumb, the more movement expected the more support the bra should provide. The bra you run in should provide more support than the bra you do yoga in.
Durability - You get what you pay for. Clothes that are more expensive because they use quality fabrics are a good investment. They won’t rip, they won't lose their elastic as soon, and they will hold their colors better through the wash.
Accessories - As designers become more aware of the needs of consumers they have added accessories to their clothing lines from sleeves with thumbholes, pants with a glasses cleaner and my favorite - the key pocket. Many shorts and tights now come with a small pocket on the inside for holding a key or cash. The pocket has been so useful that I will never buy another pair of running shorts without them.
Can fashion make you fitter? Directly, No. To become fit and healthy requires sweat, consistency, and hard work for which there is no workaround.
But as many high performers will attest - success is mostly mental.
As the researchers suggest, what we wear can affect how we think and act. So if you want to be the next wolf of wall street then grab a nice suit for your next business meeting. If you want to be the next Maillot Jaune in the Tour de France, then grab a yellow jersey and start pedaling.