Good Health Hunting: Magazine

No gender bias here

Everybody needs an active lifestyle. Photo: Nagara Gopal  

We’ve heard the expression, ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus’. While the debate rages on fractiously on its emotional interpretation, let’s see if there is any scientific merit in it from the health and fitness perspective.

Concerns and (mis)conceptions keep erupting, suggesting there is little awareness of physiology and the approach to attaining wellness goals.

That physical and mental differences exist between men and women is well established scientifically. What may not be as well known is how these generate different responses to physical endeavour (exercise), stress and disease. Here are some of the physiological distinctions between men and women that usually surface, some obvious, others not so.

An average man is taller and heavier than a woman. From an athletics perspective, since male athletes have longer and larger bones, providing them a wider surface area and more leverage to support muscles, this gives them a mechanical advantage over their female counterparts. However, female athletes have a wider pelvis and a lower centre of gravity, giving them much better balance.

Men are about 30 per cent stronger than women. Male athletes generally have a higher ratio of muscle mass to body weight, giving them the advantage of greater speed and acceleration. (However, when you compare muscular strength in relation to a cross-section of muscular area, athletes of both genders display nearly equal strength).

Men have a larger heart and lungs and generally a higher basal metabolic rate. Women generally have a greater body fat percentage than men (may not sound like music to the ears, but it could be because of the natural reproductive demands that allows a woman to keep the species going).

Women’s blood contains fewer red blood cells (according to some estimates up to 20 per cent less); this affects the intake and delivery of oxygen, impacting performance. This means women need more effort to match up. One research site gives the following example: If a man is jogging at 50 per cent of his capacity, a woman may have to jog at 70 per cent or more of her capacity to keep up.

Men and women have different levels of certain hormones. Men have higher levels of testosterone while women have higher levels of oestrogen. Testosterone is what enables men to bulk up easily. Since women have much lower levels, it’s actually a myth that lifting weights will cause women to gain muscle bulk. Weight training actually offers much-needed bone-strengthening benefits and helps prevent osteopenia and osteoporosis, common in women.

There is also a difference in stress hormone levels. Cortisol, epinephrine and oxytocin play an important role here. In a stressful situation, the first two raise blood pressure and circulate blood sugar, while oxytocin is released by the brain to counter these effects. Men secrete lower levels of oxytocin, perhaps explaining the spike in their physiological response to stress. This could be the basis of their ‘fight or flight’ response while women gravitate towards a ‘tend and befriend’ approach when faced with stress.

These differences are not meant to ignite a gender debate. Rather, it is to fuel a more pragmatic understanding of the gender-based working of the human body. While it may seem that there is a significant difference between men and women, there is little real reason to have a dramatically different approach to designing health and fitness programmes. The underlying principles remain the same — exercise (including lifting weights), diet, cross-training and avoiding over-training.

The differences that need to be addressed intelligently are those that relate to hormones and other unique differences. For example, how to overcome the plateau in weight loss for the last few kilos at lower body weights for women due to higher oestrogen levels or how to address the slightly reduced recovery capacities in women.

Physiological differences do not limit women. The positive effects of an active lifestyle and athletic pursuits are similar. The challenge is to break the self-induced gender bias towards fitness. Women have traditionally seen themselves as the weaker sex, ignoring the need to improve fitness attitudes, not seeing it as adding value to their roles at home, work or play. It’s not unusual for active women to be tagged as ‘driven’ or ‘obsessed’ rather than admired for their focus. Similarly, for men, stress is often not even acknowledged let alone managed.

Now, gender lines are slowly being blurred. It’s good to recognise that the differences are natural but a large common ground exists where men and women can both strive for better health and fitness.

Vani B. Pahwa is an exercise and rehab specialist, corporate wellness coach, and foot and gait analyst.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 3:15:40 PM |

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