This could be the key to getting you to go to the gym more, according to science

Have you been finding it extra difficult lately to pick yourself up off the couch and get moving? Just follow your nose, according to a new study just released by the University of California, Riverside.

Researchers there have gathered considerable evidence using mice that suggests sense of smell plays a much larger role in exercise motivation among all mammals than previously assumed. 

In short, some lab mice were genetically engineered to be extra athletic and enjoy running. Those same “high running” mice displayed a “unique” sense of smell in comparison to the other studied rodents, indicating that highly athletic mammals (and people) are better equipped to pick up on certain exercise-motivating smells.

While these findings imply some people will respond to these smells more robustly than others, study authors are optimistic that once identified, certain smells can be harnessed into pre-workout exercise motivating sprays, fragrances, and air fresheners.

“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 study co-author Theodore Garland Jr., a distinguished professor of evolution, ecology, and organismal biology at UCR, in a release. “In other words: spray, sniff, and squat.”

People use tons of different motivators to get themselves into the right frame of mind for an intense exercise session. Music, pre-workout drinks loaded with caffeine and other stimulants, and guided-workout videos are just a few of the most common examples. Nowadays (or at least before COVID-19 forced countless gyms to shut down), it’s a regular sight to see most people in a gym carrying around shaker bottles filled with creatine, protein, or amino acids. Perhaps in the future, everyone will have a spray bottle by their side.

Moreover, the results of this research may also finally provide an answer to an age old question. Why do some people find it so easy to exercise while others hate treadmills, dumbbells, and pull up bars with a passion? Sense of smell may be a big factor.

Exercise, which is essential for both physical and mental health, can help prevent obesity and other inactivity-related diseases and disorders in humans,” explains lead study author Sachiko Haga-Yamanaka, an assistant professor of molecular, cell, and systems biology at UC Riverside. “Some people like to exercise more than others do, but why this is so is not well understood.”

At the beginning of this study, researchers gathered together a group of lab mice and placed them within a “voluntary wheel running” (VWR) environment. In simpler terms, each mouse had access to a running wheel, and scientists recorded which mice went for a voluntary run most often. Then, they took the most athletic and quick-to-go-running mice and bred them to produce a group of “high-runner” mice. Meanwhile, another group of mice who hadn’t been genetically engineered was also included and considered a control group.

Unexpectedly, the team at UCR discovered that the high-running mice showed distinct genetic differences within their olfactory (sense of smell) systems. These athletic rodents actually perceived certain smells differently than their control group counterparts.

“The olfactory system became genetically differentiated between the high runner and control lines during the selective breeding process with several chemosensory receptors in specific receptor gene clusters being differentially expressed between high runners and controls,” Haga-Yamanaka adds. “Our results suggest these chemosensory receptors are important trait locations for the control of voluntary exercise in mice.”

A crowded gym is usually home to several odors and smells, the majority of which are anything but pleasant. A lot more research is needed to flush out these findings and identify which specific smells help induce exercise. Still, here’s hoping the pre-workout sprays of the future feature an appealing (and exercise motivating) smell.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.