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Is Scent the Latest Performance-Enhancing Workout Trend?

Most athletes have a go-to supplement, whether it’s as simple as a cup of coffee or a just-for-the-gym proprietary powder blend that tastes like manliness and chocolate. House of Matriarch, a boutique perfumer based in the Pacific Northwest, is seeking to enter this corner of the health market with its own spin on the pre-workout, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard of. The company claims that FITNESSENCE, “the first aromatherapeutic fitness-optimizing fragrance,” activates the place where your workout begins: your brain.

Christi Meshell, House of Matriarch’s creative director and fragrance Composer, concocts some of the niche perfume world’s most popular scents. Black №1, a leather fragrance described as “worldly” and “penetrating,” has received accolades from Men’s Journal, Sunset and the International Artisan Fragrance Awards — so clearly House of Matriarch knows their stuff when it comes to stink. But what is a fitness-optimizing fragrance? And does it work?

Image via House of Matriarch

Studies have long shown the effects of various scents on our moods, emotions, and physical and cognitive abilities. Lavender is soothing, peppermint is energizing and fresh-baked cookies make you more likely to help someone. FITNESSENCE claims to “create strength, stamina, balance, clarity, power and overall well-being” through a combination of natural essences that “increase oxygen flow, benefit the circulatory system, activate beneficial hormonal chain reactions, increase stamina, improve reflexes, and even signal the brain to lubricate the joints.” Pretty big claims for a 15ml bottle.

The studies on aromatherapy go two ways — and trust me, there are studies. Though we’re usually talking about individual notes and not complex perfumes, most scent-based claims do have actual science backing them up. Aromatherapy isn’t total nonsense—it’s just possible that it doesn’t work quite how we think it does. Let’s take peppermint as an example. Theory number one is that fragrance impacts you directly, on a physiological level — you smell peppermint and your body responds to it. Energizing! Theory number two is that fragrance is so tied up with memory that when you smell peppermint, you’re energized by association. It’s a trick of the mind, but the result is still there.

In a chapter on perfume from the book The Neurobiology of Sensation and Reward, Rachel S. Herz writes that it’s “associative learning, rather than hardwired responses, [that] dictate[s] olfactory preferences.” According to Herz, an adjunct assistant professor in psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University whose research focuses on olfaction, memory, and sensory recognition, “An odor which elicits such a response is probably doing so by triggering a learned emotional association, which produces a specific mood and physiological consequence.” In other words, smelling something that reminds you of good memories can make you feel happy, and a scent connected with feeling refreshed can raise your heart-rate and blood pressure.

House of Matriarch acknowledges this, describing how “FITNESSENCE can be used to create a strong mnemonic anchor in the brain from the first use: It tells your body it’s time to get moving; and this association grows stronger each time you smell the fragrance, so that the aroma itself becomes an additional motivator.”

The aroma of what, though?

Neither lavender nor peppermint make an appearance in FITNESSENCE, which instead boasts a cacophony of everything from basil to frankincense to a “blend of five peppers.” Many of the notes do hold sporty associations: invigorating coffee, refreshing spruce, and guarana, a mainstay of energy drinks, all make an appearance — as do perfume classics like sandalwood, myrrh and amber.

To see the product in action, I sent Nate Juarez-Murphree, a personal trainer in Seattle, to the gym. He had a lot to say about on-the-market pre-workout eats, from traditional ones like Optimum Nutrition and Cellucor’s C4 (“Not my favorite”) to cake (“Sugars burn off too fast”) to practitioner supplements like DotFit, which go through trials and peer review (“A little costly but they are better for your body and work really well”). Juarez-Murphree was interested in FITNESSENCE but highly skeptical; he doesn’t usually recommend pre-workout supplements to his clients, saying they need to find the energy through food and nutrition.

Image via House of Matriarch

Juarez-Murphree thinks the product might find a home with gym-goers eager to sample the latest and greatest, but is too “wackadoodle” for his tastes, which don’t normally include pre-workouts or perfume. “I cannot speak to the boutique side of gym life,” he jokes. “I think the last time I used or bought cologne was when I was 16.” Surprisingly, his first workout with FITNESSENCE was better than usual. “I was focused and had a decent pump,” he told us. But the next day, he didn’t notice any performance lift. “Day one was weird,” he admits, saying the initial results may have been a placebo effect, though overall he finds the concept “intriguing.”

A 1999 study on how smelling things can make us think we’re feeling stuff shows that our brain is pretty gullible. Test subjects were divided into two groups and given an identical fragranced sample. The first group was told the sample was a toxic chemical and the second that it was a harmless plant — after 15 minutes, the group given the “toxic” smell reported feeling ill, whereas the second group had associations of relaxation and even refreshment. Humans, it turns out, are highly suggestive. Especially when it comes to our sense of smell.

But the University of Tokyo ran a similar version of the “lie to your subjects” sniff test, where scientists doled out another identical sample (jasmine, in this case), and found that both groups experienced the plant’s mood-boosting effects. It’s just really damn hard to control for something as powerful as memory in a scientific study — so we’re at an “I want you to want to do the dishes”-style impasse until there’s more conclusive proof.

So what does this all mean for FITNESSENCE? Can wearing a specially-designed cologne to the gym take your squats to the next level? Maybe, maybe not — but if you enjoy the fragrance, it certainly can’t hurt. Over time, FITNESSENCE would become associated with working out, helping you get in the mood on days you’d rather spend watching Netflix.