'Spray, sniff and squat': The right smell might just be the motivation you need for the gym

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  • Your sense of smell might help motivate you to exercise more
  • A study on mice found that 'runners' evolved a different olfactory system to their less exercise-minded counterparts
  • It provides insight into the role genetics plays when it comes to exercise

For some, exercising is as easy as breathing, while for others it takes a lot of willpower and a few looks in the mirror to get them going.

What if you could get yourself into gym mode just by smelling the right scent?

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The power of smell

Our sense of smell is a powerful evolutionary tool that can trigger certain signals in the brain – whether for sustenance, socialising, finding the right partner or knowing when to run away from danger.

A new study from the University of California published in PLOS ONE conducted a study on four artificially evolved mice lineages that love to run in their wheels, and compared their behaviour to their couch potato compatriots.

The researchers then analysed their vomeronasal organs – an important part of the olfactory system – which can detect pheromones that can influence behaviours. It has the ability to evolve quite quickly from generation to generation and can quickly respond to environmental changes.

“These observations led us to hypothesise that selective breeding for a behaviour that is modulated by chemosensory signals would induce an alteration in genomic clusters of vomeronasal receptors that are potentially involved in the behaviour,” explain the researchers in their study.

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Results

They used voluntary wheel running to test the mice’s willingness to exert themselves. The runners preferred not to run on a wheel used by another mouse on the same day and frequently rotated to different wheels, indicating possible increased sensitivity to the smell of other mice and their urine.

The study concluded that the two groups’ vomeronasal genes were different from each other, making the receptors to the brain more (in runners) or less (in couch potatoes) sensitive to scents that affect behaviour. The results, therefore, indicate a link between the olfactory system and an increased willingness to exercise in mammals.

Role of genetics

There were also neural differences in the two groups, indicating that the runners got a bigger high from running than the couch potatoes. The runners also had different heart functions, indicating a strong association between exercise and genetics.

“Combined with these previous observations, we propose that chemosensory signals detected by the [vomeronasal organ] activate specific areas of the central nervous system that contribute to [voluntary wheel running] activity.”

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What does this mean for humans?

These results could pave the way to a new avenue for gyms and sports teams – incorporating certain smells in training studios to help motivate members.

"It's not inconceivable that someday we might be able to isolate the chemicals and use them like air fresheners in gyms to make people even more motivated to exercise," says collaborator and co-author Theodore Garland Jr.

"In other words: spray, sniff, and squat."

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