Gender Bender – How Much, How Little.
We’ve often 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 the underlying physiological factors and consequent approach to setting and attaining health and wellness goals.
That physical and mental differences exist between men and women, is well established scientifically. What may not be well known is how these generate different responses to physical endeavour (exercise), stress and disease (cardiovascular and psychological reactions).
Health is a continuum, an aggregate of physical ability and stress handling capability. Hence, understanding gender based differences in both spheres is useful in understanding efficacy (or lack of) in design and results of any health and wellness plan.
If you search for physiological distinctions between men and women, here are some of the notable ones that surface (some obvious, others not so):
• An average man is taller and heavier than a woman. From athletic perspective – since male athletes have longer and larger bones this provides them a wider surface and leverage to support muscles and gives them a mechanical advantage over their female counterparts. However, female athletes (owing to the female anatomy per se) have wider pelvis and lower center of gravity, giving them much better balance
• Men are about 30% stronger than women. Athletically speaking, male athletes generally have a higher ratio of muscle mass to body weight, giving them advantage of greater speed and acceleration. (However, when you compare muscular strength in relation to cross section of muscular area, athletes of both genders display nearly equal strength)
• Men have 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% less). This affects intake and delivery of oxygen, impacting performance, resulting in more effort on a woman’s part to match up. One research site gave the following example. If a man is jogging at 50% of his capacity, for a woman to keep up she may have to jog at 70% or more of her capacity.
• Men and women differ in levels of certain hormones. Men have higher levels of testosterone while women have higher levels of estrogen. Testosterone is what enables men to bulk up easily. Since women have much lower levels, it’s a big myth that lifting weights will cause a similar response in women, keeping them away from weight training, which offers much needed bone strengthening benefits and helps prevent conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis (common in women).
• There is also a difference in terms of stress hormones levels creating difference in stress response. Cortisol, epinephrine and oxytocin are the three that play an important role. In a stressful situation the first two raise the blood pressure and circulating 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.
Highlighting these differences is not meant to ignite a superior/inferior 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 significant difference between men and women, there appears to be little case to have a drastically different approach in designing health and fitness programs for women vs men. The underlying principles for attaining results relating to aesthetics, better body tone, cardiovascular capacity and improved fat burning remain the same – exercise (including lifting weights), diet (as in nutrition), cross training and avoiding over training.
The differences that need to be addressed intelligently would be more in terms of hormones and other unique factors that differ between the two sexes. For example, how to overcome the plateau in weight loss for the last few kilos/pounds at lower body weights for women due to higher estrogen levels or how to address slightly reduced recovery capacities in women as compared to most men.
Hence, what is more important to remember is the physiology difference driven effort index and cyclical influences. These are by no means a limiting factor for women so there is an urgent need to drive home this vital point. Despite differences, the positive affect of an active lifestyle and athletic pursuits yield similar benefits. The bigger challenge is in breaking the typical self-induced gender bias approach. Women have traditionally viewed themselves as the weaker sex in more ways than one, easily acquiescing to lower levels of effort or completely negating the need for self -improvement in this sphere as this not being a necessity or any value addition to their role at home, at work and in society in general. It’s not unusual for different thinking, active women to be tagged as “driven”. Of course, this section of women is focussed. But that’s a good thing really. Men aren’t immune to misconceptions about their exaggerated abilities and health/fitness status either. Just being the physically stronger sex (in the traditional way of thinking) does not render a man so. Stress is often not acknowledged let alone managed. Couples that share the same health/fitness goals and drive are still are not as common.
Times have changed. Gender roles are slowly getting blurred. So why not sieve fact from myth, shed the rhetoric and embark on a mutually supportive journey of health and wellbeing, recognizing that differences are natural but a large common ground exists where there is every reason to aim for and achieve better health and fitness.