Walk into any gym and you’ll find men and women gathering in different areas, even though both genders have equal access to any and all parts of the facility. Women predominantly pack aerobics classes while men typically outnumber women in the weight room. In fact, a Nielsen Trends Survey showed that women make up more than 80% of fitness and group classes. Yoga classes also include more women than men, while cycling classes and sports such as tennis and running appear to attract a mix of men and women.
Varying goals, expectations and physiological differences inspire men and women to lean toward exercises in which they feel most comfortable. But limiting yourself to a particular exercise because it’s popular with your gender can make you miss out on important, sometimes hidden, benefits. Here experts break down the pros and cons for both men and women along with injury prevention and ways to get the most out of four popular activities.
Calling for no special equipment other than a good pair of running shoes, pounding the pavement remains popular as an exercise that burns a lot of calories and requires little-to-no instruction. One of running’s attractions is that it produces a euphoric feeling called the “runner’s high.” Formerly associated with the release of endorphins (feel-good chemicals in the brain), a 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that the body’s release of endocannabinoids, substances that help parts of the body “talk” to one another, may also be behind this good feeling.
Men typically start running for the fitness and stamina results, says Michele Olson, PhD, FACSM, CSCS, professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. “They should be looking, primarily, for cardiovascular health. Men are more likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than any other cause. Running can get that job done but there are other modalities that can do the same: swimming and cycling, for example.” As low-impact exercises, swimming and biking are easier on joints while offering the same heart-health benefits, Olson adds.
A man’s goals also change with age, says Irv Rubenstein, PhD, exercise physiologist and founder of S.T.E.P.S., a science-based fitness facility in Nashville. “In their younger years, men look at running as training for a sport, getting leaner and losing weight. As men age they’re usually more focused on general health. They’re also more prone to lower back issues with running.” Male runners should focus on core strength and flexibility in their workouts, suggests Rubenstein.
Running burns a lot of energy and is an efficient calorie-burner, which appeals to women as a way to control and lose weight, says Olson.
Running is also good for skeletal health. “When not overdone, running can build bones,” Olson explains. “Women are at an increased risk of losing bone mass during and after menopause. So, building bone earlier in life is very important.”
Women runners are at a higher risk of knee (patella) problems, says Rubenstein. “To reduce the risk of running injuries, women should include glute- and quadriceps-strengthening exercises and exercises that strengthen the pelvic area.” Squats, wall sits and single-leg balance exercises target these muscle groups.
Downward-facing dog, and the flexibility that goes along with it and other yoga poses, lends itself to a largely female audience. Although benefits cross the gender gap, and more men are joining in, a recent survey of regular practitioners of yoga shows 72% consist of women with men trailing behind at about 28%. As with running, each gender tends to start yoga with different goals in mind.
Men typically start doing yoga looking for increased flexibility, says Olson. “And while yoga can do that, men should consider the effectiveness of yoga for increasing static strength and core strength.” Eight out of 10 people will have a back issue, and yoga can add needed stretching to loosen tight muscles that contribute to back pain (such as hamstring tightness); yoga can also give you a stronger body to support your spine, she adds.
Most men do not look forward to yoga because stretching is more difficult for them biomechanically, says trainer Teri Jory, founder of the POISE fitness program (poise
productions.com). “They go to yoga because they know it’s good for them or were told to go by their doctor for a variety of reasons, including stress relief.”
Women often participate in yoga to get stronger without building muscle, says Olson. “However, fitness-based yoga workouts can raise the heart rate and help to maintain heart health and balance.” As women age, the risk of heart disease increases and falls are more common, making these side benefits invaluable for living longer and healthier.
“Approaching muscle-toning and flexibility-building activities like yoga in a heart-promoting way and focusing on postures and poses that challenge and strengthen a woman’s key balance muscles can trump the aesthetic idea of being strong yet lean,” Olson adds.
Weight training, also known as resistance training or weight lifting, offers many health benefits while building strength and creating muscle tone. Although lifting weights appeals largely to men, women are discovering the benefits of adding muscle as a way to create curves and strength, especially as they age.
In general, when a man begins a weight training program, his expectation and reason for doing it is to gain strength and muscle, says Mark A. Nutting, CSCS, certified exercise physiologist and owner of Jiva Fitness in Easton, Pennsylvania. “That is certainly possible, although the results can vary dramatically depending on his diet, recovery time, stress level, amount and quality of sleep, and, of course, the type of weight training program he is on.”
Nutting adds that what men often don’t realize is that weight lifting can also assure balanced development (upper/lower body, left/right side) and that they can lose fat, lower their stress levels, lower blood sugar levels (which decrease the risk of diabetes), and reduce risks for cardiovascular disease and depression, as well as increase flexibility and the ability to do daily tasks.
Women begin weight training because they’re typically looking for aesthetics and, if they have kids, getting back their pre-mom body, says Kellie Hart Davis, trainer and co-author of Strong Curves: A Woman’s Guide to Building a Better Butt and Body (Victory Belt). “And they want to feel better about the way they look. They realize once they start putting on muscle they know it can change their shape.”
Weight training also produces benefits such as improved mood and better movement patterns, Hart adds. “This refers to the way we carry ourselves. Many of us have a forward head position [from long periods sitting in front of a computer] and strength training lifts and realigns your posture.” Greater confidence in everyday life is another possible effect of lifting weights, and this empowering mood spills over into a better ability to stand up for oneself and can even improve one’s romantic life.
Tennis differs from running or other solitary sports with the addition of its competitive component. As a sport involving both upper body and lower body strength, regularly playing tennis can lower body fat, increase cardiovascular fitness and improve coordination. “People who play tennis fall into one of several different categories: recreational players, recreational competitive and high-level competitive,” says Rubenstein.
Both men and women would benefit from some agility training, says Rubenstein. “In general, tennis players need to train rotator cuff and shoulders. The core is a critical component to both of those joints, since you’re swinging from the arms.” He adds that men, for whom the serve is so critical, need hyperextension and flexibility—the ability to arch back and hit the ball with enough power. Building forearm strength is another must.
The cardiovascular benefits of tennis also play a huge role for both men and women. While tennis requires more sprint-type, interval cardiovascular fitness, stamina to make it through a two to three-hour game means players also need endurance, says Rubenstein. “Players should work on endurance training pre-season and more interval-type of work with five- to 10-second bouts of sprints. They need a combination of distance training, but the majority should be interval training.”
Elite male and female tennis players are more likely to focus on the part of the game most in line with their natural abilities. Unlike men, whom Rubenstein says tend to depend on the power serve, “women become more oriented toward the technique of the serve in order to set up the volley. So we typically see women get good at moving in and out, where males are better at staying back in position.”
As for training, women should focus on core and upper body strength with work on the serving shoulder as a good approach, says Rubenstein. “Women should also put more emphasis on power, but you want to look at how the individual athlete plays and address weaknesses. If a player needs to work on returns they’ll want to get more power and work on their core, for example.”