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Can’t be bothered to work out? A dab of peppermint oil might just spur you to put on your trainers…

Scent is important. It’s why you’ve likely got an entire bathroom shelf dedicated to perfumes, deodorants and other nice-smelling lotions and potions. 

It’s not just that we pride ourselves on smelling good; the scent of other people can often linger long in our memories, meaning we think about an ex whenever we smell a certain aftershave. We’re dished up a dose of nostalgia about a certain time in our lives when confronted with a familiar waft.

But scent isn’t just an arbitrary pleasantry (or not, as the case may be). Our sense of smell is directly connected to the limbic system, the primitive part of our brain where emotions and memories are stored and processed – meaning it plays an important role in the physiological effects of mood, stress, and working capacity. 

In fact, many studies suggest that the stimulation of fragrances can create immediate physiological changes, such as increasing our blood pressure, muscle tension, pupil dilation, skin temperature, pulse rate and brain activity. In short, the power of scent goes further than simply finding someone alluring because of the way they smell or adding a few drops of lavender oil to your temples after a particularly stressful day.

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If scent can impact our muscle tension, pulse and brain capacity, it stands to reason that it could also very well have an impact on our workouts, right? In fact, scenting gyms is becoming very common, and there are now plenty of scent diffusers on the market specifically designed for gyms or fitness studios. And the most popular gym scent on the market, according to sales reports? Peppermint. 

Powerful, uplifting and refreshing, a peppermint scent can have a significant effect on energy levels and has also been shown to increase blood flow to muscles. Not only that, peppermint can also act as a painkiller and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, all of which are useful for performance, exercise recovery and overall health. But our understanding of exactly how strong an impact scent can have on our workouts goes further than sales reports. 

Loads of gyms and yoga studios are using diffusers these days – and with good reason.

Peppermint may improve exercise performance and mood

A recent study, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, showed that consuming peppermint oil in a drink, ahead of a workout, had a significant impact on performance. The oil improved exercise performance, respiratory function, blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory gas exchange. 

It also reduced resting blood pressure and heart rate. The amount of total work performed by the test subjects was increased by 51%, including an increase in the time to exhaustion of about 25%.

In another study, Dr Bryan Raudenbush, an associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University in the USA, gave 40 athletes a series of physical tasks under the conditions of no odour or peppermint odour. He found that the peppermint odour enhanced performance in nearly all the tasks: they could do more press-ups, run faster and grip harder. 

“Since mood and motivation are closely related, the boost in mood may also bring about an increase in motivation,” he reports in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. “With an increase in motivation, athletes are likely to exert more effort.

“Aromas in the air are carried to your brain’s limbic system, thought to have developed long before intellect. Now scientists know it has an intimate connection, not only to our emotions and memory, but also to our digestion, respiration and circulation.”

Scents can encourage us to work out more frequently

Certain scents can also encourage us to exercise more frequently, according to clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Bishop. “It is plausible that positive emotions linked with certain smells could help us to feel better when exercising, due to what is known in psychology as a ‘conditioned response’,” she tells Stylist.

A ‘conditioned response’ refers to our brain’s association between feelings and certain smells.“That is, if we associate an activity with pleasant memories via our sense of smell, it could become more enjoyable for us,” Dr Bishop explains. 

“As well as positive memories and the associated feelings being activated, the reward system in the brain can also be activated by the sense of smell. Certain scents and odours can trigger the release of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, in the reward system, leading to pleasurable sensations and positive emotional responses.”

In short, in the same way that listening to certain types of music can motivate us during exercise, smell may trigger positive feelings too.

It’s all about triggering dopamine release, Dr Bishop continues. But she warns that “it’s important to note that dopamine is just one of many factors involved in regulating exercise behaviour and performance, and a healthy lifestyle should involve a balanced combination of diet, exercise and other activities that contribute to overall wellbeing.”

How to use scent to improve your workouts

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that more research needs to be done in the area before we have a clear cut answer. “We would need to complete much more research into this in order to give an exact answer,” Dr Aneurin Kennerley, reader of neuroscience at Manchester Metropolitan University tells Stylist.

“There have been many functional brain imaging studies using MRI over the years linking odour to reward circuitry for things like hunger and sex. In activating the reward circuitry and motivation areas within the brain, we often overindulge in certain activities,” he adds. 

“One could easily hypothesize that the same mechanisms would exist for sport. Certainly, it’s an interesting question and one that could drive more research.”

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“Does one already have to be fit and active and this promotes reinforcement of that ‘good’ feeling?” he asks.

Well, for now, we aren’t sure, but we do know that the effects of scent on physical exercise will vary from person to person, and it may be a useful tool for some people as part of a larger, holistic approach to improving their overall exercise experience. 

“Natural fragrance can be incorporated into your pre-workout to provide a boost of scented energy. Burning the right candle or turning the reeds on your diffuser can instantly unlock the vitality you’re looking for,” suggests Emilie Bougè, perfumery expert at Miller Harris. 

“Search for feel-good scents such as natural peppermint, lemon and aromatic notes of geranium and rosemary. Any of these in essential oil form can also be dabbed on your gym gear pre-workout to open airways and boost mood.”

So, is scent a substitute for the hard work and dedication need to achieve our fitness goals? Sadly, no –or at least not at the moment. Could it be another tool for us to draw on when we’re in need of some extra motivation or a brain boost ahead of a workout? Absolutely. Makes scents to us. 

Images: Getty

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