Fitness: How men and women exercise differently

Mar 07, 2011

Women's Health Executive Editor Lesley Rotchford will answer your questions about how men and women exercise differently.

Is there a difference re: what motivates men and women to exercise, particularly if they want to start an exercise regime and have been rather lax in the past?

Motivation difference
In general, both men and women want to lose body fat. From there, goals often diverge: Most women want to look slim, fit, and toned, while many men want to get bigger and more muscular looking.

I thought the points about men and women exercising differently due to differences in the ways they're taught to think about exercise were spot on. There's something else going on, though. I think there's an intimidation factor that comes with stepping into the realm of the opposite sex. I'm a woman who uses my gym's free weight room, and when I go in there, I'm almost always the only woman there. I feel like all eyes are on me, and like I'm intruding into a boy's club. I've also taken yoga, pilates, and water aerobics classes over the years, and I've noticed that the one or two token males in the group usually drop out before the end of the session. I think they must feel like outsiders too.

You bring up a great point. Despite how many times we tell women they need to hit the weight room and advise guys to limber up with classes like yoga and Pilates, gender stereotypes still remain. However, recently I’ve been seeing more crossover, which is encouraging!  Both sexes need to take a balanced workout approach in order to stay fit and healthy.

I often work out with my mate. We choose the same set of machines next to each other in the gym, we play the same sports or jog the same paths--is there anything that should be considered prior to office working out to gain equal benefit? I like to continue this is a routine in bonding as well as fitness.

You and your partner have the right idea. Research shows that if you have social support, you’ll be more likely to stick with your program. Men and women can pretty much do the same routines, but you want to make sure you aren’t holding each other back or pushing each other to the point of injury. For example, the last few reps of any move should be hard but not so hard that you compromise your form.

I have a hard time losing weight while exercising, but when I stop exercising, I drop the weight much more easily. And no, it isn't because I eat too much as a result of exercising; I've even kept a food journal to make sure. Is this fairly common?

Yes, the scale isn’t the best measurement of fitness. Exercise builds lean muscle that makes you look slimmer (and your clothes fit better). But because it’s denser, it often doesn’t register as weight loss on the scale. Lean muscle also speeds up your metabolism, so you’ll eventually start to burn more calories while you’re working out—and even after you kick your sneakers. Measuring your waist, hips, arms, and thighs with a tape measure every 4-6 weeks can be a better gauge of progress than stepping on the scale every day. 

While men are not immune, women suffer more ACL injuries on the knee. I gather there's some biological difference in how knees are constructed. Any advice for gals, or guys, who want to avoid this type of injury?

Yes, physiological differences account for the fact more women suffer ACL injuries. The best way to avoid injury is to strengthen both your quads and hamstrings—muscle imbalances can leave the ACL more vulnerable.

I am training to run my first marathon in October 2011. I am a 55 year old woman and have exercised my whole life. However, I just took up running in the past year. I've done pretty well, ususally finishing all of my races in the top three for my age group. My exercise routine has always contained weight lifting. My question is: should my weight training continue to focus on my lower body as well as upper? If so, should I work on building endurance in my muscles - e.g, lower weights but higher reps? Thank you.

Pretty well? Sounds like you’re doing downright amazing!! Congrats on your race success. Weight training can improve your performance so it’s important to keep it up—on both your upper and lower body. Here’s why: Running builds cardio endurance but not muscle endurance (your ability to sustain resistance over time). Building lean muscle through strength training will power you through longer, more intense workouts. Aim for 8-12 reps and at weight that feels challenging by the end of the set.

I'm a 31 y/o man. I've been exercising and logging my calorie intake for about two months now and I've lost about 5 lbs over the last month. Although I'm very toned most everywhere, I still have a belly that I cannot get rid of. Besides diet, are there certain cardiovascular exercises that would help me deal with this problem more pointedly?

Congratulations on losing 5 pounds in a month—that’s great progress! While you can’t spot reduce, you can zap belly fat by doing a circuit of total body strength moves that works your abs while blasting calories through cardio. Check out this one:

Hi Lesley, Thanks for doing this chat today! I work out about six times a week and do pretty much the same routine every day: run 3 miles and then use weight machines to work on my hamstrings (leg curls), glutes (leg press), and thighs (adductor machine). My goal is to tone up and slim down, so my question is: Do I add more reps or more weight? Any other recommendations? Thanks again!

I’d aim for 12 reps. The weight you use should feel challenging (especially at the end of the set), so if you’re whipping through your reps, pick up a heavier dumbbell to get the best results. To look even more toned, try switching up your workout. Keeping your muscles guessing forces your body to work harder. Add intervals to your running routine (these are a huge fat burner), and add some upper body moves for total body toning.

Hi Lesley, I recently switched gyms, and I am very disappointed that my new gym seems to have only two types of classes: bootcamps that focus military-style workouts that are geared toward men (lots of push-ups and chin-ups) and step cardio and aqua areobics. Despite the fact that weight-bearing exercise is critical for women, weights classes are barley on the schedule, and the one I attended was very easy. I've spoken with the manager about the lack of challenging weights classes; she says women want cardio. I'm a woman and I want both!

You have the right idea—fitness requires a combination of cardio and strength training. While classes can be helpful for motivation, you don’t need them to start a strength training program. The weight room can be intimidating if you haven’t spent much time in there but there are always trainers on the floor who are happy to answer questions and offer tips—so feel free to ask! Here's a good workout to try on your own:

So glad to see this topic! My husband and I both started working out regularly in January of this year, about three times a week with a trainer. I have about 10 to lose and he has about 20. I feel better, with more energy and strength, but haven't made a dent in the scale yet and I'm still wearing the same size. He has lost 10 pounds so far. This seems to always happen, that he loses weight much faster than me. Can you explain why this happens? We are both eating healthier, though not perfect, but generally eat the same foods. Thanks.

Ugh, it’s so annoying isn’t it? Guys have more natural muscle mass, which fuels their metabolisms so it’s quicker and easier for them to lose weight. You can speed up your weight loss by building more lean muscle through strength training.

I have noticed with my boyfriend that we have different mindsets to fitness/eating healthily. I have changed my diet but sometimes indulge and eat low-fat desserts. He has completely cut out dessert. With exercise he'll push himself til he gets winded, and while I push myself I don't do it to an extreme. Is this a typical gender difference?

This is pretty common. I'm with you...I need something sweet after dinner too. You can have dessert without damaging your waistline by keeping it under 150 calories (calories are more important than fat). Skinny Cow makes a lot of good ones. I also love Vitamuffins! As for exercise, you need to challenge your body in order to see results. The best way to do this is to add intervals to your cardio workouts and to make sure the last few reps of your strength moves feel tough to complete (but not so tough that you have to compromise form).

Hi, Thank you for participating in this chat. It would be great if there were more fitness/eating oriented discussions on Live Online--it's a subject I am very interested in. I had a question about cardio--I am a 30 y/o female, and I do a combo of cardio and strength training for weight loss. How much cardio should I be doing at a time. I've heard that 20-30 minutes is all you need if you're doing intervals, but that seems kind of low.

30 minutes of intervals should do the trick. But I like to mix up speed days with distance days. For example, I'll do a shorter interval workout and then the next day more of an endurance run (45-60 minutes).

I am a woman, and part of the reason I run mostly rather than do weight training is that running is simpler. You just run. You don't need to know routines and have a trainer and all that. I am totally a DIY exerciser, do not want to get involved with (or pay for) a trainer. Any information or links to where I can learn more about what to do for weight training?

I love to run as well. As you say, it's just so simple...throw on your sneakers and off you go. Fortunately, strength training can be just as DYI. Here's a good zero equipment workout to try:

We do the South Beach Diet at our house. I use a treadmill and exercise bike. Because of the low carb thing, when the diet goes well the exercise does not. Am I better off exercising and eating slightly more carbs or keeping it low carb and exercising less? Or, do I just need a diet that is more carb friendly?

You need some carbs for energy. You just want to choose the right kind. Think whole grains and fruit. Try having a snack that's a combination of protein and carbs about an hour prior to working out. Yogurt and fruit or a piece of whole grain bread with a little peanut butter.

Thanks so much for your questions. You all brought up so many good points. I wish I could have gotten to all of them but time ran out. Our website,, is a great resource for fitness, nutrition, and weight loss info.

In This Chat
Lesley Rotchford
Lesley Rotchford is the executive editor of Women's Health magazine, a position that includes overseeing the fitness coverage. In her free time, Lesley enjoys running marathons and playing golf and tennis.
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