Exploring the dynamic of gender in health and fitness
On the covers of Vogue or People magazine there is almost always one reliable thing. The men and women may vary in age, race, and poses. There are slight variations in the words, instead of featuring Selena or Dwayne or even Taylor or Blake. No matter what, there is one constant about the covers: body type.
Beauty standards in America require slender, shapely looking women and fit, muscular men. In an attempt to match this ‘perfect’ standard for women, the phenomenon of the cardio bunny has emerged. This nickname, although it can apply to any person, has been predominantly associated with a woman who regularly goes to the gym and only uses cardio machines. Men, meanwhile, must live up to the Buff Guy Standard, a goal that has led to male workouts almost exclusively being associated with deadlifts or free weights. As a culture, the United States seems to believe men and women exercise differently, women pursuing this idealized shape without becoming too muscular and men, alternatively, bulking up.
Biologically speaking, there are differences in men and women’s bodies that might support this ideal. Men have greater muscle percentages, specifically in the upper body. Women tend to have more body fat, which means that “pound for pound” men are stronger. It’s possible that this could be one of the reasons men tend to lean towards weights more than women; they’re better built for it. Men also have bigger hearts which allows them to take in oxygen faster and are good for endurance. Women, however, are more naturally flexible.
None of this is new information. This idea of men being ‘stronger’ and women being more flexible is as common as 2+2=4 or water is wet. However, research from the CDC says that all adults should do aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises. In other words, sex doesn’t matter.
So why are women allegedly being drawn to cardio?
In an article published in 2010 called “Gender in the Gym: Evaluation Concerns as Barriers to Women’s Weight Lifting” by assistant professor of psychology Jessica Salvatore and senior research professor at Swarthmore College Jeanne Marececk, the authors note several barriers preventing diverse workouts for women. According to the article, two main fears women had were of appearing inexperienced and being judged by the men already present on the floor.
Exercise physiologist and personal trainer at Island Health and Fitness, Mark Alo, said that he has heard both of these insecurities in his line of work and that there do tend to be more men on the weight floor day-to-day.
“People have told me they are afraid, because there is an initial element of feeling self conscious being in a new atmosphere, with equipment they have never used, and dealing with this stereotype,” he said.
There also tends to be a cultural fear about conforming to one’s gender role. The fear of becoming too bulky keeps women away from the weights in an attempt to match the feminine ideal.
However, Drew Cost, personal trainer and owner of Conquer Fitness United said that women being bulky is not possible unless women are taking enhancers. Men, on the other hand, avoid cardio because it doesn’t directly contribute to their desire to ‘get big.’ These factors may appear to indicate some larger framework of sexism or toxic masculinity that would show gender inequality at the gym, but everybody interviewed disagreed and said that, despite these examples, this cultural idea of a female cardio bunny and men only lifting weights, wasn’t necessarily true.
Dr. Louise Mansfield, senior lecturer in Sport, Health, and Social Science at Brunel University London, said she doesn’t believe the gendered idea of fitness is strictly true anymore. She said more women are doing high intensity training and incorporating weights into their workout.
“Fitness classes and gym activities have diversified considerably since the latest 20th century to offer a blend of cardio and weight work for both men and women,” Mansfield said.
Mansfield also believes that some of the problems that Salvatore and Marececk noted aren’t just about gender.
“[It is] a complex interplay of gender, age, and competence that influences doing exercise,” she said.
For example, younger girls tend to be more self-conscious and thus age should be taken into account, not just gender.
While the stereotype might be men on the weight floor, Alo of Island Health and Fitness said he still works with many men whose interests lie in cardio-based exercises like swimming and long distance running, unlike the deadlifter expectation.
“We’re starting to see a 50/50 split,” he said.
Attitudes and exercise behaviors around sports are changing, despite cultural myth.
Exercise physiologist and personal trainer also at Island Health and Fitness, Jon Tanguay, said the exposure of women’s sports, especially in the WNBA and Crossfit, has helped dispel this myth that women shouldn’t do certain exercises and encourages women to go to the gym.
“Some men want to get real skinny and some women want to get jacked like the women they see in the Crossfit game,” he said.
It is also becoming more commonly known that only doing cardio or only doing weight lifting won’t lead to a well-balanced, fit body. The amount of articles that appear after a Google search on the subject, from Fitness Magazine to the Huffington Post, definitively debunk that myth.
When women only do cardio workouts what often happens is that, rather than burning off fat, they end up burning off muscle. Unfortunately, that same muscle helps boost the metabolism and helps burn off fat. Often times, women get frustrated that their stomachs aren’t looking leaner or their thigh gap isn’t increasing even after a daily exercise routine on a cardio machine. This is because cardio by itself can help lose weight but preserves the original body shape.
So, if this is what’s happening in gyms, then why hasn’t popular culture’s myth caught up yet?
Mansfield and Alo both believe that the media has a large role to play.
Mansfield said that while women are engaging in more sports, there is still a specific aesthetic promoted by the media.
“There remains a media focus on these women in their domestic and heterosexual appearances and capacities rather than their performances,” he said.
This is a common driving force for why women go to the gym and also creates this myth that getting buff, and thus, weights are bad.
Alo said he sees the same values enforced on men.
“I truly believe that where we see a stereotype between the fitness of men and the fitness of women is shown through popular cultural images and to destroy that stereotype where men have to be these strong muscular people and women [have to be] skinny,” he said.
This ideal tends to promote women being afraid of becoming too muscular. It also stops men from diversifying into other cardio-based fields or sports like yoga. An article targeted at men from MuscleHack.com,“Why Cardio Sucks and You Don’t Need It,” encourages men to only diet and weight train. Although the article briefly mentions being in shape for health purpose, its main goal assumes that the men reading the article are only working out to get ‘ripped’ and lose weight.
In promoting these beauty goals, people come back to the gym and fitness market, either to keep that body or always strive for an ideal that isn’t always obtainable.
Or, according to Mansfield, “the commercial forces of the fitness industry are invested in perpetuating these beauty ideals that maximize profit, despite potential consequences like injury and stigma.”
Perhaps the best way to combat these myths that women and men are so different is to start separating these ideals of beauty from the health and fitness aspects of working out. According to the Huffington Post, studies have actually found that going to work out for the sole purpose of attaining beauty goals is only temporary and isn’t a strong enough motivator to encourage returning consistently. And ultimately, fitness and attractiveness are what you decide.
Vivian Goldstein is a first-year writing major who can deadlift 600 pounds without breaking a sweat. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.