U of T study finds that tight, revealing workout gear can negatively impact physical performance

Waist-down photo of people exercising on treadmills
(photo by baona via Getty Images)

Wearing tight or revealing workout gear and sportswear may actually have a negative impact on your physical performance, according to a new study by University of Toronto researchers. 

Catherine Sabiston and Timothy Welsh, both professors at U of T’s ’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE), wanted to see if existing research that suggests women who wear tight or revealing clothing perform more poorly on cognitive tasks – as compared to women wearing loose or more concealing clothing – could be applied to physical performance as well. 

"It is thought that these differences may emerge because the tight clothing activates body image and objectification processes that may shift cognitive resources to the body and away from the task,” says Welsh, who is one of the authors of a study published in the June edition of the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

Using a sample of 80 women, aged 18 to 35 years, the researchers randomly assigned tight and revealing athletic clothing to some women and loose and concealing athletic clothing to others. All participants completed the same visual-motor aiming task to assess measures of motor performance in time and space. In addition to the clothing, participants were primed to be conscious of their bodies via measurements of height, weight and waist circumference. Photographs were taken of the participants’ bodies and a mirror as placed in the testing chamber, among other things. 

The study’s results revealed that the group of women who wore tight and revealing clothing, such as form-fitting tank tops and short shorts, were less consistent in achieving the visual-motor task and did not improve their performance over time compared to the group of women who wore loose and concealing clothing, including loose T-shirts and soccer shorts.

“These differences suggest that the style of clothing may influence motor performance in women by reallocating cognitive resources towards the body and away from the motor task at hand,” says Welsh. “The results may also suggest an interesting paradox wherein tight and revealing clothing designed for performance and comfort might actually hinder performance.”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with exercising while wearing tight or revealing clothing, but just realize that it may not be improving your performance – despite the claims of manufacturers of athletic garments. 

“Given the wide variety of athletic clothing available to women for sport and recreation, this study highlights the importance of considering the impact that the style of clothing has on performance. The findings demonstrate the possibility that awareness on the body is disruptive to motor performance in a similar way to cognitive performance” says Sabiston.

“To perform optimally in athletic activities, one must focus on the movements and skills required. When women’s focus is placed on their appearance, cognitive resources are likely divided between motor performance and their bodies. These negative performance and psychosocial responses may in turn prove demotivating for further athletic performance and learning.

“The key is to now expand our findings in real-world settings to investigate the potential impact of sport uniforms on performance, a relationship that may partially explain gender differences in some sport outcomes.”

The study was funded by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

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