A gym membership can cost about Dh800 per month but the price of motivation to work out can cost triple that for some fitness fanatics, who feel that if they do not look the part – in the trendiest, branded activewear – they aren’t training right.
What was once a niche market, targeted at serious athletes and serviced by big sports brands such as Nike and Reebok, has evolved into an “athleisure” industry steered by trendy brands such as Lululemon Athletica and Lorna Jane. Athleisure is described as activewear that can also be worn casually.
Exclusive celebrity collaborations, such as Rihanna’s Fenty collection for Puma and Kanye West’s Yeezy line for Adidas, are starting to blur the lines between fashion and fitness for buyers. Even budget and big-box stores such as JCPenney and H&M have developed their own athletic apparel ranges to cater to the growing market.
Research firm NPD Group recorded an increase of 16 per cent in activewear sales last year, compared with a two per cent increase in all apparel sales.
The recent arrival of some of the high-end brands in the UAE has further increased demand for eye-catching gym apparel here. The big question, though, is whether this trend toward athleisure clothing – a sector that US financial company Morgan Stanley projects will be worth US$83billion (Dh304.8 billion) in sales by 2020 – translates into a fitter population?
To consider this link, psychologists talk of “enclothed cognition”, a term coined by Dr Hajo Adam and Dr Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University in the United States, to describe the influence clothes have on a person’s psychological and behavioural processes.
They suggest that people are influenced by the symbolic meaning of clothes and the physical experience of wearing them. To test this, they devised an experiment that looked at how wearing a white laboratory coat affected the reaction time to certain tasks.
They found that participants who wore the coats had selective and sustained attention in comparison with those who did not.
“When people wear activewear, or just running tights even, they begin to feel more ‘sporty’, simply because of the clothes,” says Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, clinical director and co-founder of the Human Relations Institute & Clinics psychology practice in Dubai, about applying the same theory to athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
“Then, when you look at how brands such as Nike promote their products, they promote an active lifestyle. People want that, so they wear this specific brand to feel like they’ve taken the first step to an active and healthier lifestyle.”
Kanafani notes the brand generally represents a desired psychological state of being and living healthier.
Research on the psychology of colours has also found that they have an effect on mood – activewear in vibrant colours leads to higher self-esteem and confidence, for example. Colours such as pink and red release dopamine – the feel-good hormone that heightens the attention span – while cool colours, such as blue, are linked to higher levels of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, which is calming.
Dareen Abdullah, an advertising specialist in Dubai who does weight training five times a week, has a wardrobe full of stylish athletic wear from Canadian high-end fitness brand Lululemon Athletica, sports brands Nike and Reebok, and independent yoga brands Alo Yoga, Dharma Bums and Manduka. She says it helps to motivate her.
“It absolutely matters what I wear to the gym,” says the 32-year-old. “We are aesthetic beings, after all. When I look good, I feel good – and it also helps me train harder. The way you look and feel affects the actual work you put in.
“It’s no different from taking the time to find a beautiful dress and heels for a night out.”
Abdullah, who is also a yoga instructor, says she buys new gym gear every week, spending between Dh3,000-Dh4,000 a month on activewear.
“I spend so much time at the gym and other outdoor physical activities that I love wearing comfortable and nice-looking gym and yoga gear.”
Lululemon branded tights and trousers cost about Dh400, fitness bras Dh200 and tank tops Dh150.
Vanessa Giugovaz – the general manager for the Middle East arm of the brand, which teamed up with Majid Al Futtaim Fashion to open stores in the UAE last year – says the desire to find the perfect active wear is similar to the quest for any other fashion.
“The feel-good factor and the way it affects training and motivation is the newer aspect within sports psychology, which we have done an extensive study on, as well,” she says.
She adds that the company aims to add functionality into its fashionable wear. Lululemon’s engineered Sensation project combines sports psychology, science and design to create sensations that allow fitness enthusiasts to find the perfect trousers.
“Every piece is designed to support the activity of an active person, help them strive towards better performance results, while reducing any disruptions that could otherwise come from a garment,” says Giugovaz.
Dr Erik Matser, a neuropsychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai, says spending money on gymwear that can help to improve the performance of seasoned athletes is justified, but that the benefits for more casual users are less certain.
“There are certain technical features that might improve performance,” he says. “But we are talking about clothes engineered for professional sports. For the average gymgoer these won’t have any impact on the way they train.”
According to Rob Donker, a fitness instructor and general manager of corporate wellness company Beyond Wellness, a lot of his clients nonetheless take pride in the way they look at the gym.
“They are very conscious about their trainers being colour- coordinated with their outfit – it makes them feel confident,” says the 29-year-old, who is a brand ambassador for Puma.
But he says he always advises his clients to opt for functionality over fashion.
“Most big brands have seamlessly integrated both now,” says Donker. “But I would rather you be able to perform exercises such as a squat and lunge properly than have cool gear that restricts mobility.”
Not everyone is tempted to spend large amounts of money on the latest designer gear. Dawn Barnable, a Canadian who lives in Dubai, is more conservative with her spending on gymwear, only purchasing a couple of outfits each year. She says she looks for comfort and trendy designs in her activewear.
“Last year, as I was just about to take up running, I bought a new pair of running shoes,” says the 35-year-old, who trains at Vogue Fitness and CrossFit Yas. “They looked great – but more importantly felt really great, and I remember being really excited to get out there and start running in them.”
Barnable is a firm believer that brands do not matter so long you feel good in the whatever you choose.
“There are quite a lot of options out there now for workout clothes that are functional, look good and also suit many different budgets,” she says.