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How men and women exercise differently

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By Vicky Hallett
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 11:59 AM

No one wants to think she's a cliche. But it's time for me to recognize that when it comes to my gym behavior, that's exactly what I am: a cardio-loving woman who has to be forced to hoist a dumbbell.

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I would feel worse about this revelation if it weren't for the fact that my husband is just as stereotypical. Every workout is a chance to outdo himself, which inevitably results in soreness, shin splints and other woes. A few months ago, at a boot camp class, he generated so much heat that his head - no joke - started to steam. I can guarantee that I'll never work that hard.

Luckily, we can both blame it on biology, according to research by Weight Watchers. The organization is best known for counting points, but behind the scenes, staffers are sorting through a lot more complicated data. And some of the most fascinating stuff stems from contrasting male and female attitudes toward weight loss and activity, says chief scientist Karen Miller-Kovach.

For starters, a much higher percentage of the men surveyed believe that exercise is enough to slim down, whereas the women tend to embrace a smarter combination of eating healthier and moving more. "You rarely hear guys say, 'I'm going on a diet.' Instead it's, 'I need to hit the gym,' " Miller-Kovach notes. (That may also explain why men make up just 10 percent of Weight Watchers' membership.)

But the Weight Watchers surveys show men top women when it comes to actually enjoying exercise. "That doesn't mean women don't know they need to be physically active or don't do it," Miller-Kovach says. "But if you're a woman, you're looking at being active as a means to have wine with dinner. For guys, to sweat is a badge of honor."

Then, there's the approach: Women are likely to take small steps toward a goal while men are quick to make sweeping changes, according to the research. "It's the Hundred Years' War versus the Battle of Normandy," Miller-Kovach says. And where we choose to have that fight also differs. For men, it's the weight room. For women, it's anywhere else.

These are all generalizations, and, of course, there are plenty of outliers for both sexes. (Weight Watchers' research is proprietary, so exact figures are not available.) But you can witness these opposing strategies - and their accompanying weaknesses - if you look around almost any gym. Women clump by the cardio machines, regularly reading magazines and talking, thus lessening the effectiveness of their workouts. Men congregate around the largest of weights, which they proceed to pick up even if that requires heinous form.

Heavy, dude, but . . .

Lynda Espada, fitness director of the D.C. Jewish Community Center, says that, from her observations, "Women never want to push it. Men want to push it too much."

Partly, that's because women tend to worry about bulking up no matter how many times they've been told that they'd need to grab some steroids along with that heavier dumbbell to make it happen. For guys, it's the opposite. "They think the more weight, the bigger they will be and the better that is," says Espada, who notes that in reality, more weight than you're ready to handle leads to injuries rather than bulging muscles. "You can't be grunting and groaning and throwing weight around."

It's possible that men and women would get these messages more easily if they weren't so hung up on preconceived notions of what kind of exercise is appropriate for them. "Guys are thinking about high school even though what they learned doesn't apply to a 40-year-old," says Robert Sherman, the group fitness manager for Equinox's Washington area clubs. If Sherman had his way? He'd make sure every man made time for yoga and that every woman put strength classes on her schedule.

Change comes slowly

Over the past few years, that's started to happen more as older exercisers have been warned by their doctors to change up their routines and younger ones have brought their evolving attitudes to the gym.

But there's still an intimidation factor when it comes to the unknown. Espada understands when new female clients tell her they've shied away from weights because they've never been fully introduced to what to do with them. She felt the same way 20 years ago when she first breached the boys' club. "I start slowly so they get comfortable," she says. "And when they see they can do it, they realize it's fine."


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