We’re kicking off a series of conversations with people with different perspectives on all things health, nutrition and fitness. It might challenge your assumptions, or even inspire you to try something you previously thought you never would!
This week we're chatting to Nutritionist Vic about the differences men and women face when approaching fitness and nutrition. It is so important to understand that whilst there will be differences, your fitness and nutrition should be focused on your own goals. Let's talk about it.
There are often lengthy debates in the fitness industry about whether men and women should approach training and nutrition differently to one another. And while there are some key biological and biomechanical differences, there’s a great number of other factors that should be taken into consideration that we need to be careful not to overlook.
So let’s get started.
When we look at an anatomical and physiological level there are some key differences that may have a bearing on our training and nutrition.
Bone and muscle
While men typically have a larger skeleton and more muscle, women more often will have more muscle mass and strength in their lower body compared to their upper body so their relative lower body strength may be greater. As we all age, there are key changes when it comes to both bone and muscle; both men and women are prone to muscle mass decline as we age, for women this is a much sharper decline post-menopause. And while men and women are prone to Osteopenia and Osteoporosis (reduced or decreased bone mineral density), this tends to be more commonly occur at a younger age in post-menopausal women (Maltais et al. 2009), and a little later for men.
Women will typically have a lower Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) than a man of an equivalent weight and height (often in the hundreds of calories difference) This doesn’t, and shouldn’t, be interpreted to mean that women will always need to eat less than men - this is a problematic stigma, in fact, because it means women who are very active and have increased energy demands through a tough training regimen will very often shy away from eating the calories they need.
It’s no secret that us ladies will have to navigate a number of physiological factors that men don’t. For most of us this means managing our menstrual cycle from our teenage years, through adulthood, possibly encountering pregnancies and leading right up to peri-menopause and menopause. Many also have to manage conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) which affects between 6-21% of women (dependent on diagnostic criteria), endometriosis.
Taking the menstrual cycle as an example, with changes to hormones, both physiological and psychological experiences may mean that many experience greater hunger and food cravings, often brought about by a temporary increase in BMR. Add into the mix that these hormonal changes can also have an impact on our training where at various points in our cycle we may be able to tolerate more or less training volume, and experience fluctuations in strength. If we look at this in even more detail (this one’s for a whole other post!), recommendations for nutrition during this time, especially in very active women, can be periodised according to type & duration of exercise in terms of both overall energy intake (total calories) through to macronutrient intake (Wohlgemuth et al. 2021). But that one’s really not for today! This is often the reason women will have different needs when it comes to vitamins and minerals than men.
There may also be hormonal dysfunctions relevant to both men and women e.g. hypothyroidism, that can make day-to-day life more challenging, let alone trying to pursue certain health and fitness goals.
So on paper, it seems we’re pretty different when looking at how our bodies are built and how they function…
But the danger of starting to delve into all the specifics of what sets women apart from men (and vice versa) when it comes to how women might approach nutrition and training differently, is that in pursuit of trying to be more specific, you can see lots of generalisations made (Maughan et al. 1986), (Hunter 2014).
E.g. “Women can train harder at XX point in their menstrual cycle” is a dichotomous view; even if the research might suggest this could be the case, and perhaps is for many women, it’s not taking into account that person as an individual.
While research shows there may be some advantages in particular training styles and highlights the types of ‘stresses’ women may be able to better tolerate than men (and vice versa) for most people embarking on exercise or training, this level of detail really won’t need to come into consideration and certainly shouldn’t overshadow that person’s individual preferences, goals and lifestyle.
More on this to come…
We must also remember that many differences can (and do) really exist from more of a psychological standpoint too.
Take for example, the differences in attitude when it comes to approaching our fitness. It’s clear that for women in particular this has been heavily influenced by a patriarchal view that women should be small, and quiet (more often than not we aren’t in an environment where we feel we can take up space).
The campaign This Girl Can launched in 2015 in response to research conducted by the campaign’s founders Sport England which showed that two million fewer 14-40 year old women were taking part in sport, when compared with men, despite the fact that 75% said they wanted to be more active.
All of this boiled down to some more practical factors (time, cost etc) but overwhelmingly respondents cited that the fear of judgement by others was the primary barrier in holding them back from participating in sport or fitness pursuits.
When it comes to fitness pursuits, this is why I’m a huge advocate for doing what brings you joy, even if it takes some courage to get there. Remember that there really isn’t a best approach for women vs men. There’s no ‘best exercises’ for either; the only ‘best exercises’ are the ones you enjoy and the ones that will help you move closer to your goals.
Which helps me to land this super important point (and congratulations on making it this far!).
While there are physiological and psychological factors to take into consideration and some differing needs, how you approach your training and nutrition should always centre around your own goals and ambitions, and your own individual lifestyle factors (time, family, work, sleep, stress) than they really should around whether you’re male or female. I can not stress this enough.
It’s important that we look at ourselves as individuals and not get wrapped up in some of those fine details which could trip us up. Some women will be in a position where they need to eat far more calories than some men, depending on their goals & lifestyle. Some women may never need to make changes to their training and nutrition to coincide with their menstrual cycle, and some will have to build a much greater awareness of how their cycle impacts their progress and this can empower them to adapt accordingly..
So I’ll leave you with some key principles that really are relevant to us all.
1) Before we set goals, we should start with getting clear on our Core Values. Our Core Values should act as the compass to guide us in our goal setting and getting, and our goals should then be more like the roadmap with milestones and guiding us on how to navigate the journey.
2) We all need to ensure our goals are realistic with our lifestyle in mind; work, stress management, sleep, socialising etc. These are the factors that make up your world outside of your goals and setting totally unrealistic goals that involve you having to drastically turn your life upside down or go against your core values is likely to be highly unsustainable. So think big, sure! But be sure to know the steps and actions you need to take to realistically achieve it.
3) While there are physiological differences in calorie needs for men and women, this does not necessarily mean that women will need less calories (energy) than male counterparts. Your energy needs are also going to be greatly dictated by your lifestyle, overall activity levels, training and goals.
4) We can all feel vulnerable about embarking on changes when it comes to our fitness and nutrition. Find people who understand you, and who will be able to support you on your journey. That might be a gym buddy, a partner or a coach. Having someone in your corner will really help make a huge difference and keep you showing up.
5) We should all spend time cultivating mindful eating techniques, and working on mindfulness to extend into, and positively influence other areas of our life too. Spending more time eating meals distraction-free, paying more attention to what we’re eating and our levels of hunger and satiety are great skills that set us up for a better relationship with food and with the act of eating.
6) Now… I know I said there is no one ‘best exercise’, but something to consider is that we will ALL benefit from some level of resistance training, and this need increases as we age. Earlier I mentioned those changes to our muscle mass and bone density, and resistance training can support us greatly when it comes to this. Through retention of muscle and bone density, we reduce the risk of falls, and the risk of injury, and generally setting ourselves up to stay stronger for longer.