wellness

The fitness industry's hidden secret: "Difference between the sexes can't be ignored."

As a woman, have you ever felt that your fitness professional doesn’t truly understand you?

Perhaps they have clocked you and made assumptions on your fitness level, your strength, your abilities or lack of them?

Or perhaps they have not asked the questions that really do impact on your ability to exercise. Instead leaving it to you to communicate (or hint) at what is really happening, mentally or physically, when you exercise.

No more is this particularly true than for postnatal (especially when your babies are no longer babies), peri-menopause and postmenopausal woman.

And why?

Well that is what the fitness industry doesn’t really want you to know. And, often unfortunately fitness professionals themselves, remain ignorant of.

When you think of a fitness professional – your thoughts might be to the PT in the park, or the instructor at your local gym. But I want you to cast your net wider. A fitness professional maybe a yoga or pilates instructor, run your local F45 or a mums and bubs class in a local hall. One thing all of these people have in common, is that they share a basic education (to varying degrees) in anatomy and physiology and understand the relationship between exercise or movement and muscles.

Those fitness qualifications have been created on credible research. This research is universally acknowledged, hence you will find the same assumptions made and similar fitness education created across the world.

But what that research and then ensuing education omits to tell you, is that this research has been conducted on men. And the assumption that has been carried forward is that women should be trained as “small men.”

fitness for women
Image: Getty.
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Don't read this to mean, that women are unable to train as hard, or as specific as men. They can... but perhaps to be more accurate: When women have contributing factors as similar to men as possible, then this will allow them to have the same or similar training outcomes.

Difference between the sexes needs to be acknowledged and respected, not ignored.

And here are three main differences that heavily influence our different training needs and outcomes.

1. Hormonal differences.

The role of hormones plays an enormous part in all parts of physical and emotional makeup. We only need to look at toddlers and teenagers to see this played out - from everything to changing body shape, acne, brain development to behaviour variances and/or extremes.

For men, we may all joke about the "manopause" but the reality is that men's hormonal landscape is linear, with the gradual tapering of testosterone in older age. For women, the hormonal differences are more extreme with rising and falling levels of oestrogen and progestogen (and some testosterone) as we ovulate and menstruate each month.

There is also another hormonal picture for women during their lifetime and that is pregnancy and postnatal. And then pregnancy/postnatal/pregnancy/postnatal/peri-menopause/menopause/post menopause.

Each of these hormonal changes undeniably correlate specifically to how we make (and keep) muscle mass.

It is a fair conclusion then to assume that most effective training of a woman's muscles, must therefore go in sync with the menstrual cycle. So, when was the last time your trainer / fitness professional asked you where you were in your cycle? And then modified or intensified your program to work with, not against your hormonal changes. Or you that you felt comfortable to take, or ask for a restorative training session, when you were (for example) pre-menstrual?

No one can deny that these hormonal changes have a significant impact on the training needs of women. Thankfully we have much more training and understanding on how to work with this group, such as this excellent training resource from Girls Gone Strong * But we do not routinely see pregnancy, postnatal or menopausal changes being (sufficiently) addressed in standard fitness qualifications. Instead we find this information in the "special population" category. Meaning it is left up to the individual fitness professional to seek out, pay and complete for extra qualifications and training.

But I ask you - as a woman - are you a special population? Have a look around your yoga / pilates / group fitness class / PT in the park / gym... who do you see? And although not all women choose to be mothers or give birth to children, all women with a uterus will experience menopause.

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fitness for women
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2. Anatomical differences.

There is no denying it. The shape of our pelvis's are different. However, the most distinctive anatomical difference between men and women, is that women have an extra opening at the very base of their pelvis. An opening with no sphincter muscle to draw it closed when needed.

Men and women both have pelvic floor muscles that help control the flow of urine, faeces and wind and they also play a vital role in sexual performance and enjoyment. However, due to the anatomical differences, coupled with the child bearing influences, women are at a much higher risk of pelvic floor dysfunction than men.

Does this impact on training? It most certainly does.

Ask a woman who leaks urine or faeces when she jumps or is given inappropriate exercise if it impacts on her enjoyment or commitment to exercise. Ask a woman who has experienced prolapse if this impacts on her training. And the statistics are staggering. One-third of women will experience incontinence and around 50% of postnatal women will experience prolapse. Statistics also tell us that exercise can negatively impact both.

We certainly don't want women to stop exercising - as prolapse and incontinence rarely kill women - but lifestyle diseases that exercise positively impacts on, does. It is relatively simple to learn how to work with your body and modify exercises to keep you dry and active.

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But again, don't think that this information is mandatory with a yoga / pilates or any other fitness qualification. It doesn't. It is left unspoken and unacknowledged, which leads to many women suffering in silence. Or thinking that they are the only ones and who may find it easier to not be active, than actually being supported.

3. Social/emotional differences.

As we live in a patriarchal society, women have long valued their worth, or had their worth valued by others, in terms of how we look. Women take more time to get ready for work and spend significantly more money on personal grooming services than men. The reason is not necessarily that we like shopping or make up more, but that our culture demands women to look a certain way.

And if you google fitness motivation for women or follow social media influencers - you inevitably get the same image continually portrayed. It is young, it is skinny and usually white. And almost always fully abled.

fitness for women
Image: Getty.

For women who have just had a baby, the most common fitness message they will receive will be "How To Get Your Body Back!" - like it went away on a holiday and you need the long distance call to encourage it to come home and looking exactly like it once did before pregnancy.

The same marketing model is applied to the peri-menopausal/menopausal woman.

In our society, it is still a common sin for women to grow old, become bigger than thin, be any other race than white and not to smile!

Thankfully, we are finally starting to see a kick back on these long pushed perpetual promises of BS.

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But how was your news feed in January?

I actively mute ads that fat shame and "fitspiration" quotes, because the truth is my body has changed. It is continuing to change. Even if I spend my life at the gym, I simply cannot look twenty years younger, or erase the stretch marks from growing and feeding small humans.

My body changed physically and emotionally when I went through puberty, and now going through menopause, it is changing again. Yet, when I go to the gym, I see many women like me. Not young, not thin, not always white and many holding injuries that can't be seen by looking. We don't want to be ignored. Nor given ridiculous unattainable standards to "live up to" or be inspired by. They don't work. We want empathy and understanding that we are more than our outer shell.

Women rarely simply go to work, go the gym and come home. We get kids off to school, organise the house, shop for dinner, go to work, organise dentist appointments and sport runs, cook dinner and do the majority of the house chores. Our mental capacity is full of keeping family and work/ other commitments afloat. So when we do make it to our fitness commitment, we need empathy and understanding that we are many things to many people, so our training session needs to be specific to our needs.

However, women are different. We have different needs and it is time for the fitness industry to understand that women are not and should not be trained like small men.

We demand that more research is committed to finding out what is best for us.

fitness for women
Image: Getty.
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We are not a special population that fitness professionals need to "seek out" extra training to deal with our changing bodies.

We demand less judgement for not attaining the unattainable and demand environments that support our individualism.

We demand fitness professionals to ask the right questions, create the right environments and provide the modifications so that we can continue to remain active through incontinence, prolapse, pelvic pain, DRAM and our changing hormonal landscapes.

I have been writing education, writing articles/blogs and presenting at conferences for nearly a decade, raising awareness with fitness professionals. And the good news is that relatively simple changes can be easily implemented, in order to cater to women equally. This stuff is not rocket science!

However, the change is slow and with all industries - the motivation to change is often in response from the demands of the customer. If you are a customer, and this article has resonated with you; then ask questions of your fitness professional about their qualifications. Or share this article with them.

And trust that if you feel that you are not being fully catered to... you are not dreaming it.

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