1. What does fitness mean to you as a woman?
For most women, fitness may sometimes equate to thinness. So often I hear women telling other women that they don’t need to exercise as they are already thin enough. But what about the health aspect of it? How many women exercise for the sheer joy of movement? And not just to lose weight?
2. What kinds of exercise are available for women today?
The “fitness” bug probably started in the ‘70s when jogging became the thing to do. Before this most exercise was taken in the form of walking, playing sports or dancing. Research begun on the benefits of cardiovascular workouts which then evolved into dance routines set to music that elevated the heart rate. Thus began the Aerobics boom in the ‘80s. Women began to swarm to these classes and grew physically stronger and felt more in control of their bodies.
Women tend to gravitate more towards a class setting as they tend to be more social than men. They also take instruction better and are more receptive to changes in their workout routine.
Today women lift weights, spin, do step aerobics, Pilates, yoga and much more. There is no reason for them not to participate in any of these activities. The problems arise when women do not take into account the difference in their anatomy and physiology and maintain fitness workouts at a level and design targeted to the male population.
3. In your opinion you believe that women should be exercising differently from men?
Yes absolutely. I know that most trainers are not of the same opinion. But you have to look at the differences in our anatomy and physiology to understand the need for exercise design specific to women. As a fitness trainer you are educated in sport specificity for each individual sport. Thus a marathon runner is trained differently from a swimmer who is then also trained differently from a weight lifter. Why then wouldn’t you train someone who is physically and mentally and emotionally different from men, in another way?
4. What are these differences that you talk about?
Well, for starters, anatomically we have a smaller skeleton and less density in our bones. Our muscles are lighter and suppler than men’s.
Our skeleton has a different shape too. Our pelvis’ are wider and shallower and in a more anterior tilt.
Our shoulders are narrower. We basically have the exact opposite shape to men. We are smaller on the top and wider on the bottom and men are wider at the top and narrower at the bottom.
If our bone structure is different, then it stands to reason that our musculature is also different. Our upper body tends to be weaker than a man but our leg strength may be stronger.
5. So what are some of the exercise adaptations that women can adopt?
Take an exercise like a squat for instance. The stance for women should be wider with a more anterior tilt to the pelvis. If the woman is also holding weights, the weight should be appropriate for HER body and not be just a weight. There are many more shoulder and arm injuries among women who lift weights than among men. Overhead arm exercises with weights that are too heavy for a woman may cause a number of these injuries. Women tend towards longer necks which may translate to longer muscles in this area. The longer finer muscle has less strength then the shorter thicker muscle which men have.
And yes that ever defining six pack abs. What every woman seems to be aiming for. Some may attain this but my guess is you would have to be doing a lot of ab work to get anywhere close. The reason behind this is again the difference between the female and male body. As women, we naturally have fat deposits on certain parts of our body. Some of these deposits are found around the navel area. It is NORMAL to have a tummy as a woman. We also have fat deposits on the inside and outside of our thighs and on our butts. Working these areas to death goes against the nature of our bodies.
6. What other differences are there that will affect exercise?
And then there are the hormones! Women have estrogen, men have testosterone. What does that mean? Estrogen is responsible for the female or sex specific body shape. Estrogen is the culprit for laying down those fat deposits. These fat deposits are essential to the female anatomy and physiology and trying to get rid of them is ludicrous. Excess fat however, should be got rid of!. But what this also means is that women have a higher fat to muscle ratio and this makes it harder for us to lose weight. Which is why women are encouraged to build muscle mass through lifting weights.
Estrogen is balanced out by hormone progesterone in the female body. However, during the monthly cycle, progesterone will increase and when it does, it causes fluid retention in the female body. Apart from making us feel uncomfortable it has some effects on exercise. When the body retains fluid in the tissues which include the ligaments, the female body will tend to become softer and maybe a little more unstable. A number of sport injuries increases during the premenstrual phase due to this instability. Of course it affects each woman differently.
Estrogen also has anti inflammatory properties and offers some protection to the joints.
Does this mean you should tone done your workout during your period? Only you can be the judge of that.
7. How else does being female affect an exercise routine? How about during pregnancy amd postpartum?
So let’s say you have just got an exercise routine down and you’re feeling good and you’re seeing some improvements in your health and fitness when you discover you’re pregnant! Do you still continue to exercise like a man? I have personally witnessed trainers who, once they have found out their client is pregnant have proceeded to “work them out hard” in preparation for the birth. Since the pregnant body now has MORE hormones that are working specifically to “soften” the body so that it can open and release the baby, working out hard is a contradiction. So yet again, the female exerciser needs to change the way she works out.
Then of course, after the baby is born, you have this totally different body than the one you had before pregnancy and again, the exercise routine has to accommodate these changes. If we do not acknowledge these differences not just between the female and male but also between the different stages of a women’s life, we can and do, cause harm to the average women who likes to exercise.
Just as you need to train someone for a specific sport, you need to be training pregnant and postpartum women according to their needs.
8. What other time during a woman’s life should she change her exercise routine?
The next big change in a woman’s life is of course, Menopause. This has a huge affect on the way and type of exercise a woman needs.
During menopause the female loses most of her estrogen and progesterone. This in turns will change the shape of her body; have an effect on her bones and heart and also on the elasticity of her skin.
Once again, she needs an exercise routine that is specific to her needs.
9. If you had to generalize, what type of routine would you design for the average woman?
We are talking about the AVERAGE woman here. Watching some women in the gym, I have to ask myself what they are training for. For general health and fitness or for a specific sport? Most women exercise hard to try and obtain a body that really takes much more effort and time commitment than we mere mortals have. As an elite athlete chances are you have to work out o average 4-5 hours a day. As mere mortals most women have to squeeze their exercise into an already over extended schedule.
So for the average everyday women I would include about 20-30mins of cardio for heart health and weight maintenance, some resistance training with weights or bands for muscle gain and bone health. Then some stretches to release tight muscles. Along with that, for women I would also include some relaxation techniques that include deep breathing. This is because as women, we use all of our senses and subtle bodies. We are basically “on” all the time. We are multitaskers and in order to re charge, we need some kind of release work, this can be through stretching, breathing or massage. Our hormones define us as the nurturers and caregivers and exercise is one way in which we can relax and destress.
10. Many research studies on fitness have focused on men with the assumption that the findings would apply across the board. Have there been any findings from cases that focus on women?
It is true that mostly men make up research subjects in the mistaken belief that it would apply to women as well. This is NOT the case. Again because we have different hormones, we react differently to any stimuli whether it is exercise or something else. I believe that things are changing now and more women are being included in these studies. However, the reverse is also true in that men are excluded from certain studies because of the belief that they are not prone to certain conditions. Take osteoporosis for instance. This has been mostly a female condition for years. The reasoning behind this is that women experience bone loss due to a drop in estrogen during the menopausal years. Estrogen is thought to protect against this loss. Therefore, women have been encouraged to do weight bearing exercises such as jogging or aerobics classes to counteract this deficiency. But it has been found that men may also suffer from this condition too. Men have larger bones which are not as susceptible to this condition but it is still a concern for them too. When it comes to research both sexes must be included.
11. Do fitness levels of men and women differ?
Again you would have to define what fitness actually means to you. Do women have more endurance, flexibility, ability to take instruction, better coordination, better awareness of their bodies? Then yes we differ from men.
Men have more muscle strength, more power, the ability to build muscle, the ability to lose weight, the ability to do the same routine for years and never change and yes they differ from women.
12. Men and women tend to target different muscle groups when exercising. Why is that?
It is common for anyone to always do the exercises that they CAN do. When it comes to women, the lower body is stronger and therefore, working out is easy and doesn’t take much effort.
The same is true for men. Their upper bodies are stronger so you will see them lifting weights more than doing any lower body exercises.
But for both populations, there must be a balance. If your goal whether male of female is to be healthy and strong, then the whole body must be worked equally.
And for men as well as women, we must look at the body holistically and take into account other factors that may be affecting exercise. This can be an emotional issue, or a mental issue, something as simple as lack of nutrition or fatigued or any other “normal” situation that then becomes an equalizer between the sexes.
No one can work out efficiently when they are tired, depressed, stressed, under fed and overwhelmed.