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How Activewear Impacts Your Workout Performance and Motivation

The clothes you wear to break a sweat matter much more than you think. Find out how to optimize your wardrobe through dopamine dressing and learn other techniques to level up your potential in the gym.

Unlike your workout routine itself, you may not put much thought into your activewear choices. You might carefully curate a fitness program that’s perfectly balanced with strength training, mobility work, and cardio, for example. But the clothes you wear for those activities may very well depend on which sports bra and leggings you spot in your dresser first or, frankly, what’s clean. The result: an outfit that’s too restrictive, too loose-fitting, or too sweat-absorbent for the workout you’re about to tackle.

Of course, there’s no shame in being indifferent toward fashion. However, being more intentional about what you wear to, say, a brand-new workout class, the crowded gym, or your first running club meet-up does have advantages. In fact, experts say your activewear has the power to actually impact your mood, motivation, and performance.

Shape Activewear Motivation
Alo Yoga puffer vest. Issey Miyake top & skirt. Jordan sneakers. Mejuri ring.

Kat Slootsky

5 Ways Your Activewear Choices Can Impact Your Workout 

The idea that your clothing influences your emotional state and ambition isn’t that far-fetched, says Carolyn Mair, Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist and the author of The Psychology of Fashion. “There's a really close connection between your body and your mind, and it's clear that how you feel physically impacts how you behave,” she explains. So when you’re wearing clothing that’s functional and makes you feel physically comfortable (think: a pair of silky smooth, sweat-wicking leggings and a supportive sports bra in your favorite color), you’re more likely to push through roadblocks to reach your fitness goals, she says. 

But that’s not the only way your choice of activewear can affect your workout. Keep reading for the five elements of your workout clothes that can boost your confidence, drive, and more.

Shape activewear motivation
Issey Miyake jacket. Melody Ehsani x Foot Locker bra, shorts & hat. Asics sneakers. Yam earrings.

Kat Slootsky

The Color of Your Activewear

People tend to associate specific colors with certain feelings and imagery. Imagine the color yellow, for instance, and you might think of sunshine, flowers, brightness, or happiness, says Mair. Red might feel aggressive, stimulating, and attention-provoking, while blue seems authoritative, adds Dawnn Karen, M.A., an assistant professor of psychology at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and the author of Dress Your Best Life. 

These color associations may seem trivial, but you can actually use them to boost your motivation and performance. One way to do just that: mood illustration dressing, says Karen. This technique involves choosing clothes that sustain your current mood by inducing the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood and makes you feel calm, happy, and focused, according to the Cleveland Clinic. For instance, if you wake up feeling particularly chipper, you might choose activewear with colors (think: yellow, red) that help you sustain that upbeat attitude throughout your upcoming jog, powerlifting session, or kickboxing workout, explains Karen. 

If you’re dreading your training session, however, you’ll want to practice mood enhancement dressing, aka dopamine dressing, says Karen. ICYDK, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives you a sense of pleasure and also motivates you to seek a positive reward, says Mair. In this case, you’ll choose workout outfits with vivid colors that are meant to promote the release of dopamine and thus optimize your mood, says Karen. “If you feel a little nervous about working out or don't really feel confident, wearing blue could [remedy] that,” she explains. “If you’re feeling kind of sluggish — you rolled out of bed and are like, ‘I don't feel like going to the gym’ — wearing some red can actually stimulate you.” Wearing red clothing has also been found to increase performance in sports competitions and make you feel more dominant, according to research published in Frontiers in Psychology. On the flip side, you’ll want to choose softer colors, such as pastel green and blue, to promote relaxation for your yoga class or meditation session, adds Mair. 

Of course, these color associations aren’t universal, and your culture, past experiences, and geographical region can all influence how you perceive each hue, according to the experts. “But when you have a strong belief in the social-cultural meaning of a color, such as that yellow means happiness, then you internalize it,” says Mair. “So when you wear yellow, it can lift your mood.”

shape activewear motivation
Alo Yoga corset bra & socks. Jordan 23 corset bottoms. Jordan sneakers. Yam ring. Missoma ring.

Kat Slootsky

The Fit and Feel of Your Activewear

When you’re hell-bent on hitting a new PR on the track or in the weight room — or reaching any other goal, for that matter — the comfort of your clothing is key, says Mair. Activewear that’s scratchy, itch-inducing, and pinches your skin will only distract you and prevent you from performing your best, as will baggy clothes that feel like they’re falling off your body, she explains. But if all those factors are accounted for, you’re free to fully focus on the task at hand, making you more likely to perform at a high level, says Mair. 

Just like the equipment you use, your clothing should be viewed as a tool that’s crucial to helping you perform well, she explains. “Your workout clothing needs to be clean, well-fitting, and something that was designed to wear in the gym,” says Mair. “It's just about having the right tools for the job.” For example, wearing a low-impact sports bra during a HIIT workout or constrictive leggings during a mellow yoga flow could make it challenging to complete the moves to the best of your ability and without experiencing discomfort.

How You Perceive Your Workout Clothes

Walk into your first Pilates class wearing a random college t-shirt and a pair of beat-up shorts you found in the back of your closet, and there’s a good chance you’re not going to feel like (or present yourself as) your most confident self, says Mair. Research shows that your clothing choices reflect how you feel about yourself — and how you want others to feel about you. Specifically, having positive feelings about your clothing has been linked with having positive views of your own emotions, sociability, and work competency, according to research published in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. Translation: If you wear your favorite workout clothes that allow you to comfortably move your body and make you feel like a total goddess — not the stained, mismatched set you usually reserve for days lounging in bed — you’ll likely feel more self-assured and at ease in the new environment, says Mair. And that confidence boost can translate to better performance.

Thinking of your workout outfits just like a uniform can also help you stick with your fitness routine, says Karen. “When people wear a business suit, they feel different — they feel more professional, more conscientious, and as if they're going to do their job,” adds Mair. To take it one step further, you can choose to only wear your activewear when you plan on actually exercising, a habit-forming technique happiness expert Gretchen Rubin calls the Strategy of Pairing. For example, if you typically wear an adorable exercise dress when you’re relaxing on the couch, working at your home desk, or shopping around town, try reserving it just for your true workouts. Once you form an association between a specific outfit and exercise, simply putting on the clothing can motivate you to hit up the gym or go for the jog you’ve been debating taking all day, according to the experts.

Shape Activewear Motivation
Lacoste pullover. Alo Yoga shrug, skirt, socks & visor. adidas x Ivy Park sneakers. Yam necklace.

Kat Slootsky

The Branding Behind Your Activewear

Even an activewear brand’s identity can influence your workout performance and motivation, says Mair. Think about Nike, which, with its “swoosh” logo and “Just Do It” motto, embodies the idea of speed, power, and high performance. Once that association is burned into the back of your mind, you may feel like you’re able to run faster or tackle one more box jump while wearing clothing from the company. “If you see a brand standing for something or you see athletes who play a sport you want to do in that clothing, wearing that brand that could motivate you and [make you feel like] you can work at a higher level,” she explains. 

The clothing’s branding can help you achieve your non-fitness goals, as well. “What you wear to the gym immediately says something about yourself and your personality,” says Mair. By wearing an Ivy Park workout set to your HIIT class, for instance, you’re indicating you’re energetic, outgoing, and a Beyoncé lover. And these subtle expressions of your character could ultimately help you become friends with like-minded folks in your class, she explains. 

Shape activewear motivation
COZI x Foot Locker puffer coat. Reprise bra top. Jordan 23 pants. Converse shoes. New York or Nowhere hat. Yam earrings.

Kat Slootsky

The Cost of Your Workout Clothes

If you just dropped a significant chunk of your paycheck on new activewear, you might feel more motivated than usual to put it to good use. “More expensive activewear could actually motivate you to get [yourself] out of bed and get to work,” says Karen. FTR, you shouldn’t take these points as a reason to splurge on a new set of expensive workout clothes from the latest and greatest brand every few months. There are plenty of other effective ways to motivate yourself to get sweaty via your activewear (including considering the elements mentioned above), and the overconsumption of clothing — particularly fast fashion — contributes to environmental degradation, among other social costs, she explains. One way you can treat yourself to brand-name workout clothes while keeping your impact on the planet (and your wallet) in check? Consider shopping on resale apps such as Poshmark, thredUP, or Depop before buying new. 

SHP Activewear Motivation
On Veronica (left) / Puma x Dua Lipa top. Jordan 23 engineered pants. Air Jordan sneakers. New York or Nowhere socks. Yam earrings. On Kayla (right) / Lacoste jacket. Yitty top & bottoms. Puma sneakers. COZI x Foot Locker unitard. Chunks hair clip. Yam necklace & ring.

Kat Slootsky

A Final Thought 

The color, fit, cost, and branding of your activewear can all influence your mood heading into your workout and your performance during it. And when you select outfits that make you feel confident and comfortable, you may even feel more motivated to stick with your routine in the long run. 

“It's very important for people to present their best selves to others — it's a fundamental, psychological thing,” says Mair. “So if you can afford to buy an outfit that is serviceable and good quality, you’re much more likely to go the gym, wear it, and feel good in it. Then if you’ve been to the gym once and enjoyed it, you’ll want to go more often and do more of it."

LEAD IMAGE: On Kayla (left) / Athleta x Alicia Keys puffer coat. adidas x Ivy Park sports bra, leggings & sneakers. Alo Yoga visor. Mejuri rings. Yam necklace. On Veronica (right) / adidas x Ivy Park metallic pullover & sneakers. COZI x Foot Locker unitard. Alo Yoga visor. Yam necklace & earrings.


Photographer Kat Slootsky

Stylist Amanda Lauro

Models Veronica Campos for We Speak Models & Kayla Maria G for Zebedee Talent

Hair Peter Matteliano

Makeup Deanna Melluso

Creative Director Jenna Brillhart

Senior Visuals Editor Kelly Chiello

Editorial Director Alyssa Sparacino

GM Hayley Mason

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