Gender differences in exercise

Obesity levels are at an all-time high among men, women and children in the United States

By Jennifer Wider, MD

The need for good nutrition and regular exercise is paramount for maintaining proper health and for keeping those extra pounds at bay, especially for women. Beginning in her late 20s and 30s, a woman's average body weight climbs steadily each year. This increase usually continues into her 60s. For many women, the weight gain is between one to two pounds per year with some women gaining more, and others less.

Aside from weight loss, women who incorporate regular exercise into their daily schedules may lower the risks of certain diseases and conditions.

A recent study presented at the Ninth Annual AACR Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research Conference, revealed that women who exercised for at least 150 minutes a week significantly reduced their risk of endometrial cancer, regardless of their body size.

The Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that in order to prevent weight gain, an average woman who eats a normal diet needs 60 minutes of moderate exercise per day. If a woman is overweight or obese, 60 minutes of exercise is inadequate to keep off the weight, according to the study. In many cases she will have to modify her diet, including cutting down on overall daily caloric intake.

For older women, a dose of moderate, regular exercise may slow the progression of age-related memory loss. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that exercise may even reverse changes in the brain due to the aging process. Other recent studies prove a positive correlation between exercise and a lower risk of colon cancer. Despite the numerous health benefits that accompany exercise, there are some important things women need to keep in mind in order to prevent injury.

According to Alice Chen, MD, a specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut, "There are some gender differences in exercise-related injuries. Most of these relate to ligament laxity." Women need to take extra precautions because although, "they feel less sore than men after vigorous exercise, due to hormonal differences, women will have more laxity in their ligaments and therefore potentially more ligament injury at extreme stresses," said Chen.

Pregnant women and women in the postpartum period may have additional health concerns due to fluctuations in hormone levels. "Pregnant women (and postpartum) with their shifting levels of progesterone will have more vulnerability to injury," said Chen. Women are also more likely to experience knee pain than men, especially in the patellar (knee cap) region. This is partially due to their natural laxity and also due to "an (anatomical) difference in the knee angle that puts women's knees at an increased level of stress," explained Chen. The good news is there are specific things women can do to reduce their risk of injury while exercising.

Prior to working out, women should make sure to:

  • Stretch. Everyone should warm up before engaging in vigorous exercise. 

  • Stretching and light aerobic activity to get the heart rate up helps to warm you up and prevent muscle injury. 

  • Hydration. Many people are chronically operating on a fluid deficit 

  • and working out and sweating further depletes their fluid reserves. It is vital to stay hydrated before, during, and after exercise and always monitor your fluid levels in order to prevent muscle injury and overheating. 

  • Adequate caloric intake. Under nutrition can lead to amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) due to hormone disruption. If this persists it can result in bone mass loss (osteoporosis), placing the athlete at risk for potential stress fracture.

Athletes who are consistently undernourished may experience long-term health consequences, such as amenorrhea. According to Chen, "menstruating athletes gain two to four percent bone mass between the ages 20 to 30. But those athletes with amenorrhea will lose two percent bone mass a year. Since women start to lose bone mass in their 40s naturally with menopause, the athlete is vulnerable to a higher lifelong fracture risk."

Exercise is essential for maintaining a healthy body, and taking precautions to ensure safety during exercise is equally important. Stretching, hydration and adequate nutrition will help lower the risk of injury in women.

Wider, J. (2011). Gender Differences in Exercise. Retrieved March 3, 2011