You don't have to wait until you're fit to look good while working out. In fact, experts say, what you wear to the gym can go a long way toward helping you stay motivated and confident -- and can even improve your workout performance.
"Putting on a flattering outfit motivates people to actually go to the gym or to exercise outdoors in public," says performance coach Larina Kase, PsyD, MBA, president of Performance and Success Coaching LLC in Philadelphia.
This, of course, raises the question: Just what is flattering? That depends on your individual body shape and size, says Kase.
As a general rule, though, she suggests that black shorts, a sports bra, and a colored top -- lime green, soft pink, and shades of blue are in style right now -- are a flattering choice for most women.
Men tend toward black for their workout outfits, which is always a safe choice, says Lynne Brick, BSN, president and owner of Brick Bodies and Lynne Brick's Women's Health & Fitness in Baltimore. "Everyone looks great in black, regardless of size, shape, or fitness level."
Those who are not confident about their body images should look for workout clothes that provide good coverage, says Melissa Ediger, assistant product manager for New Balance fitness apparel.
A short-sleeved shirt and mid-thigh-length shorts with a relaxed (but not oversized) fit are a good choice for men and women alike, she says. Heavyset people may experience leg chafing while working out, but wearing compression or bicycle-type shorts under a looser pair of shorts will eliminate this problem, Ediger says.
Aside from avoiding anything unflattering (there are usually lots of mirrors in a gym!), it's a good idea to stay away from any outfit you don't feel good about, says health educator Victoria Moran, author of Fit from Within: 101 Simple Secrets to Change Your Body and Your Life.
"Exercise requires energy, and putting on the sweats you wore for three days straight when you broke up with your last boyfriend or girlfriend is an energy-zapper," she says.
After all, workout clothes serve both a practical and a psychological purpose. "On a practical level, you need special workout clothes simply because street clothes are either too constricting, or they'll rip, or they're made from non-breathable fibers," Moran says. "But psychologically, you need special workout gear to convince yourself it's time to work out.
Put Function First
Of course, looking good isn't the only consideration when choosing a workout outfit. Your best bet for any activity is to choose clothes that stretch and bend with you, the experts say.
"You don't want to choose loose-fitting or short shorts, and then not be able to use the machines or do floor exercises that require a straddle position," Kase says. Long shirts with loose sleeves will also get in the way, and could even be dangerous if they get caught in the equipment.
Loose-fitting tops are also not appropriate for yoga or Pilates because they can ride up during some of the moves, says Ellen Wessel, president of the Moving Comfort athletic wear company, High-impact activities also require more form-fitting tops -- especially for larger-breasted women -- to minimize movement and promote comfort and support, Wessel says.
Comfort is key, too. So look for clothing that moves moisture away from the body as quickly as possible, Ediger says.
"A 100% cotton T-shirt will get soaking wet quickly and will stay wet," she says. As a result, you'll be uncomfortable and may be tempted to cut your workout short.
And take care not to overdress. "A good rule of thumb is to keep cool by wearing as little clothing as you feel comfortable in (and is appropriate to the setting) because people exercise more vigorously when they are not overheated," Kase says.
Most important of all, make sure you're wearing a good pair of workout shoes, says Brick. Go for quality, and choose the right pair for your activity.
"Shoes need to be supportive and specific to the activity you plan to do," she says. Running shoes, for example, do not provide enough lateral support for the side-to-side movement that is called for in an aerobics or step class.
What Lies Beneath
Don't overlook your underwear -- especially if you're a woman.
"Larger-breasted women can carry as much as five pounds per breast, making participating in high-impact activities like running difficult because of severe breast discomfort, says Elizabeth Goeke, executive vice president of Moving Comfort.
These women should look for workout bras made specifically for their figures, with such features as adjustable straps for a custom fit and breathable fabrics to minimize chafing. Smaller-busted women will benefit from sports bras in their sizes.
For optimal comfort for both women and men, choose the right fabric for your underwear.
"Cotton is not the right choice," says Goeke. "Look for performance fabric that is breathable, moisture-wicking and quick-drying. These fabrics won't promote bacteria growth and are better than cotton for health reasons."
Or you can bypass underpants altogether and work out in fitness shorts, pants, or tights with a built-in crotch panel, Wessel adds. Don't wear underwear with these garments, she says, because it will negate the benefits of the performance fabrics used for the built-in liners.
While you want to look good while working out, exercising while fully made up is never a good idea, says Rachel Weingarten, co-founder of airkisses.com, an online style sheet for women.
"If you're serious about your workout, then forgo any makeup, which might clog your pores while you sweat," says Weingarten. Opt for a clean face, with a cotton or terry headband to keep sweat off your face. If you prefer not to go completely au naturale, use a tinted moisturizer and tinted lip balm to add a bit of color to your face.
Don't overdo the jewelry either, which can get in the way and may make it hard to grip equipment and lift weights, Weingarten says.
Instead, focus on a sharp-looking outfit, and the great feeling you get from a successful workout.