fitness · motivation

Fragrance Pairings for Fitness Activities

It’s probably best not to ask me what kind of fragrances I like, unless you have a spare hour and some open real estate on your wrists.  I am what we in the community affectionately refer to as a perfumista, an appellation used in a genderless fashion to describe someone who has been drawn down into the fascinating world of perfume and personal fragrance.  The fragrances I like, the ones that I love and really make me swoon, take me on a journey, transport me somewhere wonderful or intriguing, or evoke strong emotions and personal connections.  Fragrances have the power to lift me up, help me focus, ground me in the moment, and energize.  As such, it is a tool I happily use to enliven my workouts, help me push through or to get started. Here are some of my favorite fragrance and fitness pairings.

Photo description: The author’s personal bottles of Eau des Baux, Parfum Sacre, Chanel Bois des Iles, and Champagne de Bois.

For contemplation, mindfulness, and activities that have you focusing inward like yoga or mind-muscle hypertrophy training: consider woody and/or incense fragrances.

A wonderful exemplar in this category is Chanel Bois des Iles.  Chanel fragrances have an austere, contained feeling to them.  They may be noticeable, but they still feel restrained even when their sillage is blooming.  (Sillage is the “throw” of a fragrance, to what degree it can be detected at a distance from the body.)  Bois des Iles is a rich sandalwood fragrance, but this isn’t a dirty, essential oils, body odor and natural fibers kind of sandalwood.  Instead, it’s a carefully tended sandalwood jewelry box, sanded down so all the sharp edges are rounded and elegant. (Other wonderful, woody scents to consider include the affordable, spicy cedar L’Occitane Eau des Baux, and the sparkling Sonoma Scent Studios Champagne de Bois.)

If smoky incense is more your contemplative style, Caron Parfum Sacre is a classic of the genre, although perhaps more high holidays church service than meditative ashram.  Parfum Sacre is a very dry, almost ashy incense layered with just enough rose to soften the edges.  This is an introverted scent, dark enough to almost be brooding, but melancholy rather than self-pitying.  If you want your incense to be a bit less Gothic in character, try Etro Shaal Nur.

Photo description: Bottles of Chanel Egoiste, Fico di Amalfi, Gris Clair, and Guerlain Vetiver.

For fragrances that energize you and help you get pumped to push hard, classic colognes or vetiver-based scents may be more your style.

For a perfumista, the word cologne has a few meanings.  It can mean a scent is an eau de cologne, suggesting that there is a lower concentration of fragrant oils in the mix, or it can mean it has certain fragrance notes that many of us associate with “sporty” and/or “masculine” scents.  I could go on quite the tangent here about gender norms and fragrance, and perhaps some day I will do that, but for today let it suffice that a true perfumista does not pay attention to these categories and assumptions except inasmuch as they help us communicate what we are experiencing as we consider a fragrance.  Both uses of the term “cologne” can be useful when searching out energizing, “clean” scents.  

A wonderful example of the category is Acqua Di Parma Blu Mediterraneo Fico di Amalfi.  “Fico” means fig, and Fico di Amalfi is all fig and citrus, a bright and cheerful fruit combination that avoids being candied.  Fig scents can vary from green and bitter to smooth and coconutty.  The fig in Fico di Amalfi stays on the greener end, grounding the cheerful citrus (mostly grapefruit and lemon to my nose), and outlasting it to give a sharp, crisp hum of scent that will last through your workout, but not long afterwards. (Other fresh scents to consider include the herbal sandalwood of Chanel Egoiste and the dusty, summer lavendar of Serge Lutens Gris Clair.)

I am not a big fan of vetiver scents, as the note can go from grassy (which I like) to muddy and mushy, like a week’s old pile of wet grass clippings (which I don’t like).  The one vetiver I own is Guerlain Vetiver, which stays on the strictly clean, soapy end of the grass spectrum.  However, several perfumista friends have commented that they love the note while exercising, with Prada Infusion de Vetiver being a safe choice if you want to avoid much sillage in a studio, and Frederic Malle Vetiver Extraordinaire as a more complex offering.

Photo description: Amouage Memoir, Tauer PHI, and Lys 41.

Up to this point, I have been suggesting fairly “safe” options, fragrances that are relatively easy to come by and easy to enjoy.  However, in true perfumista fashion, I would love to draw you down into the art of fragrance with some unusual and wonderful scents that will push your comfort zone and have you reconsidering what a fragrance can do.  Wear these scents for long hikes, or while working out at home, or when you aren’t concerned about whether or not your personal fragrance plays well with others.

Amouage Memoir is usually classified as an incense and leather scent, but I also get warm spices, boozy, fruity tannins, and luscious vanilla.  Memoir changes over time and it has enough sillage for you to notice it again and again as it morphs from top notes (what you smell initially), to heart notes, and base notes (what lingers at the end).  It stays present and beautiful and interesting for hours, and if you’re lucky enough to get some on your scarf or coat collar, you can enjoy it for even longer.  It stays on fabric for weeks.  I would pair Memoir with an extra long walk through my neighborhood, especially on a sunny, crisp day.

Tauer Phi: Une Rose de Khandahar is a jammy apricot and rose fragrance, thick and luscious like the best homemade preserves.  The base of this fragrance will feel familiar to any Tauer fragrance fans, a heady mix of amber, soft spices, and tobacco leaf.  At first spritz, I am nearly overwhelmed by the camphorous fruit, which shoots up and slightly sears my nasal passages, but nearly as fast as I notice this effect, it begins to settle and warm into apricot, cinnamon, and rose.  This is not a light, “pink,” thin rose, but rather something so luscious and full, it’s almost like eating a rose bloom rather than smelling it.  Like Memoir, Phi stays interesting and changes for several hours.  Not quite as long-lasting as Memoir, it has more sillage, and I rarely spritz more than a couple sprays so as to not overwhelm my senses.  I would pair Phi with an active day around the house, where half of my steps come from chores before eventually heading out for my daily stroll or lifting session.

Le Labo Lys 41 will be the lightest offering I will invite you to try in this section.  It’s a sunny, buttery tuberose scent (even though it’s named “lily,” as that only references which ingredient is in highest quantities, not which note is most dominant).  Tuberose is a note that I took a while to appreciate.  It can be very sweet and hard to miss, like the first sopranos in a choir.  Lys 41 begins to my nose with tuberose front and center, and then slowly morphs into something beachy, with tiare, lily and jasmine.  It stays bright and floral all the way through, settling close to the skin but occasionally blooming and making its presence known.  I would pair Lys 41 with a higher energy workout, something that gets the heart pumping and warms the skin. (Although if you really want to play, get a sample of Frederic Malle Carnal Flower and be ready to have strong feelings about tuberose!)

I could go on.  There are so many wonderful fragrances to explore.  It is an artform worthy of our time, like revisiting a great opera or symphony again and again–each experience shows us new nuances and interplay we may have missed in the past, a new appreciation and new associations to give it meaning.  I welcome you to explore this beautiful tool to enliven and enrich your fitness practice, too!

Any fellow perfumistas out there?  Feel free to drop a howdy and a fitness and fragrance pairing in the comments!

Photo description: two very full shelves inside the author’s “perfume cabinet.” Over 50 bottles can be seen.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher.  She can be found smelling fantastic, picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon.

11 thoughts on “Fragrance Pairings for Fitness Activities

  1. I love your passion for this — and I’m curious though — all the fitness spaces I work out in are scent-free, which I appreciate because my asthma is triggered by other people’s scents. And I can’t always predict when/how that is going to happen. Are your gyms not scent-free? (All of the workplaces I work in are as well).

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      1. That’s a huge difference. I used to love perfume but my workplace is scent free and my undergrad university went scent free more than 20 years ago. Gyms the same here. Now I’m overwhelmed by it in elevators and airplanes and sneeze!

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    1. Yes, I try to be considerate, too. I’m guessing with COVID I have at least a year of training on my own still ahead of me, and I can wear whatever I want.

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  2. Hi Majorie!

    This is a fun post! Back when I went to the large gyms, people came in after work, so they would be wearing the remnants of whatever scent they applied that day. There was something earthy and alive about being in a room doing calisthenics or aerobics, and people sweating and radiating both scent and their own body odor. And when I took spin classes, the instructor would darken the room and light a gently scented candle- using lavender or mint- to set the mood!

    Now, i am doing Pilates, strength training and cardio all from home. A grassy vetiver or citrus scent on the wrists is very uplifting, and sets the mood for exercise to occur. As we slowly get vaccinated and start going back to exercise spaces, I think scent is going to be a marker or health.

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  3. What a thorough look at what could be used while exercising! I mostly use citrus and Vetiver and/or white musk – as you mentioned – to get myself going. But so many other scents could profitably be paired with movement. These days my exercise is all at home or outdoors so I can really just use whatever works for me 😃

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    1. Thanks, Merlin! There is some freedom to our choices right now. But I’ve noticed that I reach for certain things depending on my energetic needs, so even though I could go BEEG and no one would know but me and the cats, it still isn’t always the right choice for how I’m feeling.

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  4. Hey Marjorie, what a great post! I’m in awe of your perfume collection. Now that I have that out of the way….I walk daily, usually in the morning, and I wear my big, loud stuff then. Walks are also a good time to test something new, since I can shower it off afterwards if necessary. In the Before Times, when I was a daily gymster, I stuck with citrus based fragrances like Chanel L’Eau or Paris-Biarritz. The 4711’s are good, as is Acqua di Parma Colonia. If I had a session with my trainer, I’d wear a fragrance, but I’d spritz it a few hours before the session time.

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    1. Thanks, Nancy! Is it awe-inspiring or embarrassing? I think it could be both. 😉 I agree with big and loud as a great pairing for the daily walk, especially these days. I really should try more of the Acqua di….etc’s. I love my vat of Fico di Amalfi. I will make a note of Parma Colonia. Enjoy your fragrant workouts!

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