So many studios dim the lights for your workout, but is there benefit to exercising in the dark?
I’m pretty sure that I punched harder than ever before when I went boxing earlier this week. The class, at Kobox, was my first back since Covid restrictions were lifted, and while I’d been following virtual boxing classes in my living room, they hadn’t quite hit the spot in the same way.
What was so different between my home boxing sessions and being back in the studio? Obviously, there was the fact that I was actually using a bag and gloves, rather than just shadow punching the air. There was a real-life instructor to shout at me, which non-specific encouragement shouted by an influencer through my phone screen just can’t emulate. Most importantly, I think, was the room itself. More specifically, the lighting – or lack of it.
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Dimly lit workout studios are nothing new. The new breed of boutiques that boomed in the mid-2010s established the now-infamous ‘nightclub’ vibe that we all know and love. They are synonymous with loud, bassy music and dark rooms that encourage you to push yourself further.
Kobox’s slogan is “Where Fight Club Meets Nightclub”, with chief business officer Kris Pace telling me that the signature lighting “helps create a totally immersive club-like vibe while delivering that extra edge of motivation our clients love.
“We do get a lot of positive feedback from our clients on the setting, aiding them to go the extra mile – or take on that boxing combination on the bag that they may not have tried if the room was lighter and more exposed.”
But is it actually true that we work harder when in the dark, or is that just mind over matter?
Narrow your focus
Compared to dark boutique studios, commercial gyms can be overly stimulating. They’re brightly lit, with graphic posters on the walls, adverts playing between chart-pop songs, the echo of class in the thin-walled spinning studio.
“From a sensory processing perspective, gyms tend to draw your attention externally and pull your attention from what you’re doing,” says Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant. “Reducing light down to a level that’s considerably less intense means we naturally can’t focus on the external environment. That in itself will ultimately narrow our focus, make us more likely to internalise what we’re doing and how we feel.”
This impact might not only be drawn from the darkness. ChromaYoga studio uses colour to enhance similar effects, drawing on research that shows different colours have their own specific light frequency, and those light frequencies also have physical and emotional benefits on the body.
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“For instance, red light has been shown to improve metabolism, circulation and muscle regeneration, so we pair that with a strength and power-based class for optimum performance,” says founder Nina Ryner. “The immersive studios allow people to really just look inward and concentrate on themselves rather than being distracted.”
I can’t deny that the uppercut and hook combos came more naturally to me when the only thing I could make out in the darkness was the outline of my bag and the silhouette of my training partner. But despite being hyper-aware of my exhaustion, I was continuously able to push myself. I knew that my heart rate was higher than I’d usually let it go, my legs were shaking yet I kept my bounce, and my shoulders were sore but I threw punches.
Fear of the dark
The most obvious reason why the dark feels like you can jump, punch and run harder is because no one else can see you. “A major part of our success story is that although the studio is vibrant and full of energy, it’s also discrete so those who may not feel comfortable in a group class have the chance to leave their inhibitions at the door and really let loose,” says Pace.
Chambers agrees that the dark reduces our fear of judgement. “It’s definitely less intimidating to walk into that space. You know there can’t be intense scrutiny of your technique, performance or sweatiness – because no one else can see. But there’s less internal observation as well – less judging of yourself in comparison to the instructor, the person next to you, and even yourself if you can’t see yourself in mirrors.”
Perhaps this played more of a part in my workout than I’d care to admit. While I love boxing, I’m no expert. In such a skill-based workout, it’s great to be able to train without worrying that the person next to you is doing it better. Of course, hiding bad form in the dark is dangerous – but shadowing yourself from the comparison at your drive during a cross can be motivating.
Ryner is passionate that you can achieve this sense of confidence without darkness. “The colour in our studio is actually really vibrant and bright because I think that being in the zone isn’t about hiding – it’s about responding to how the colour, light and sound make you feel,” Ryner adds.
Lowering your inhibitions
“Dark spaces definitely have an element of permission to push boundaries,” says Chambers. Much like in the nightclubs that studios are trying to emulate, we may make choices about our movement that go beyond what we might otherwise decide - though hopefully with less regret.
While there’s limited research into how darkness impacts our motivation and performance, studies would suggest that darkness can increase creativity while making us feel “free from constraints and [triggering] a risky, explorative processing style.”
“The combined lack of visual cues and psychological separation from the real world ultimately gives us an element of freedom. I think that’s what we sometimes need to push beyond our internal monologue that tells us to stop,” says Chambers.
Images: Getty / Kobox
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).