A study from the University of Waterloo is bringing new insight into the gender wars: contrary to
previous assumptions, women are better at processing oxygen when they start exercising than men, a sign of aerobic fitness.
Researchers put 18 participants, nine males and nine females, all in their mid-20s,through their paces on a laboratory treadmill and measured oxygen consumption and extraction, finding that the women were faster at processing oxygen throughout their bodies by a measure of 30 per cent.
“We found that women’s muscles extract oxygen from the blood faster, which, scientifically speaking, indicates a superior aerobic system,” said Richard Hughson, study co-author and member of the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences and Schlegel Research Chair in Vascular Aging and Brain Health at Waterloo, in a press release.
The conclusion came as a bit of a surprise to the researchers, who point out that while previous studies have indicated otherwise, those studies had involved male and female children or older adults, whereas this may be the first to look at the gender divide in young, healthy adults.
“The findings are contrary to the popular assumption that men’s bodies are more naturally athletic,” said Thomas Beltrame, lead author of the study and member of the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Waterloo. “While we don’t know why women have faster oxygen uptake, this study shakes up conventional wisdom. It could change the way we approach assessment and athletic training down the road.”
There are a number of ways in which exercise and physical activity impact the female and male bodies differently. Females have less total muscle mass, for one. On average, men have 40 to 50 per cent greater upper body strength and 30 per cent greater lower body strength.
And before even getting to the gym, women have on average 25 per cent body fat in comparison to the non-gym- going male who has 15 per cent. Their lung and heart capacities vary considerably, as well, with non-athlete males having a VO2 maximum oxygen volume of 3.5 litres per minute compared to 2.0 litres per minute for women.
But women have also been shown to handle endurance better in some contexts than men. Women’s bodies burn more fat but less carbohydrates during exercise than men’s bodies, and their muscles are characteristically less prone to fatigue than men’s, both of which mean that women can potentially perform at the same intensity as men but for longer periods of time.
Beyond the physiological, there are social elements at play that determine fitness of men versus women, with men known to be more physically active in general than women. A 2015 study in the United Kingdom, for instance, found that where one in three men exercise on a regular basis, just one in six women do, with 60 per cent of women saying they’ve never hit the gym in comparison to 30 per cent for men.
In reality, both men and women could stand to be more active, however. Statistics Canada reports that only 17 per cent of men and only 14 per cent of women are getting the minimum recommended amount of exercise each week.