Sense hacking. Sure the phrase sounds a little Matrix; curdled with a scary, future world vibe in which our artificial intelligence overlords convince us to do their will.
But it’s time to snap out of your day dreams of being manipulated by a machine. Why? Because this is actually a practice that people at the top of their game in the science and fitness worlds know is a golden way to improve your health and fitness prowess.
By harnessing sight, sound, touch, smell and taste – and bending them, slightly, with specific colours, noises, materials, scents and foods – we can manipulate our brains and bodies into hitting better physical performance.
(Side note: the term ‘sense hacking’ is sometimes also used to describe trying to create entirely new senses for humans, using tech – stuff like the ability to hear colours or to taste sound, as opposed to optimising your existing senses for enhanced wellbeing. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get to it.)
So, what’s sense hacking?
Although brands have been appealing to our senses for years – US fried baked good makers Dunkin’ Donuts even installed coffee aroma-releasing machines in South Korean buses which increased sales by 30% – people at the bleeding edge of fitness science now understand that you can twist these methods for to reach your personal goals. Think: wearing a certain shade to signal to your brain that it’s time to push harder as you cycle over the top of that hill, or listening to a track whose beats per minute chimes perfectly with your ideal running pace.
‘The first step to hacking our senses is to get more in tune with them,’ says Chris Divecchio, elite fitness trainer and the author of The 5×2 Method: Revealing the Power of Your Senses.
‘Most people don’t pay close enough attention to the present and operate from an unconscious state – but really honing in on how you feel when you introduce things to your senses is incredibly empowering.’
Sense hacking your way to a PB: sound
As anyone who’s ever smashed out that one. last. treadmill. minute. thanks to Beyonce’s ‘Who Run The World’ busting into their Spotify steam knows, the right sounds can amp up your workout like not much else.
‘Music can draw your attention away from feelings of fatigue and pain when engaged in endurance activities such as running, cycling, or swimming,’ explains Professor Stephen Mellalieu, a sport psychologist at Cardiff Metropolitan University. ‘Synchronising your music with repetitive exercise is also linked to increased levels of work output.’
Whether it’s heavy rock or the latest Ariana tune, finding a beat that syncs with your workout has been likened to ‘a type of legal performance-enhancing drug,’ by Brunel University sport and exercise psychologist, Professor Costas Karageorghis.
‘There’s a huge array of scientific research to prove that the BPMs (beats per minute) in music has a direct impact on our alpha brain waves,’ Divecchio agrees. ‘Try running to a certain type of music and see what your pace time is, then, the next time, change up the music and see what kind of effect it has.’ Doing this will help you to work out your personal sense hacking playlist, for when you really need to dig deep.
Sense hacking your way to a PB: sight In-depth colour psychology isn’t lost on sportswear brands. In fact, when Nike developed the Pro TurboSpeed suit for the London 2012 Olympics, they interviewed a range of athletes about what gives them a mental boost when the pressure is on to perform.
As a result, the brand’s designers found that patches of contrasting colour made the athletes feel faster, so fluorescent yellow strips were placed on the inside surfaces of the suit.
‘Research has shown the positive impact of wearing the right coloured clothes, termed ‘enclothed cognition’ can dramatically alter your performance,’ Professor Mellalieu says. Based on wavelengths in the colour spectrum (still with us?), researchers at Melbourne University and the University of Essex have found that building a workout wardrobe with the following hues is a surefire way to propel your performance.
- RED: Perfect for boxing or Crossfit, red is a powerful colour known to increase your heart rate.
- GREEN: Green lends a restorative vibe, which is why outdoor workouts leave you feeling on top of the world. Wearing green can mimic those effects and give you that extra boost you need on mile five.
- BLUE: Cool tones have been shown to boost productivity and concentration levels –making it the best colour to wear on those tricky dance moves.
- ORANGE: Orange is stimulating and energising, making it ideal for that die-hard HIIT class.
- YELLOW: The yellow wavelength has emotional connotations, so save the sunshine shade for PMS days when you need a little extra help to get you to Ashtanga.
- PURPLE: As the shortest wavelength, violet has spiritual and calming properties – perfect for your weekly yoga session.
Sense hacking your way to a PB: smell
Yes, catching the right scents is another way to reach your goals. How? ‘Research has validated that certain smells stimulate EEG patterns (electrical patterns in our brain), increase pain tolerance, improve athletic performance and enhance alertness,’ Professor Mellalieu explains.
‘Studies have long shown that peppermint and lemongrass are energising, while rosemary and cinnamon fight physical exhaustion and mental fatigue.’
For your next long run, try Neom’s pulse point energy treatment for a little pick-me-up before hitting the gym.
Sense hacking your way to a PB: taste
According to colour theorist Professor Jill Morton, signals from the tones of food has been the driving force behind our culinary choices for centuries. Why? Well, it use to be pretty important – our earliest ancestors would avoid blue, purple and black when foraging for their dinner, as these were colour warning signs of potentially lethal plants.
It’s a clever solution that’s got wings in 2019. Experts at the Rohm and Haas Paint Quality Institute found that yellow stimulates your appetite, whereas a study conducted by the University of Basel discovered that people who use red plates tend to eat less, due to its connotations with danger.
However, as green is the opposite side of the colour wheel, it makes dishes more appealing. So, if you’re trying to go hard on your miso-spiked salmon fillet with sweet potato and garlic-fried curly kale, try sticking it in a green Tupperware for your lunch or choosing grass-hued containers for your meal prep, for an extra feel-good hit.
So, get your playlist primed, wear your striped yellow and black gym top, inhale the fumes from a mug of strong peppermint tea and eat your gain-getting pre-training snack from a yellow plate.
Then, go forth and smash your sense-hacked workout.