Different gender agendas at the gym?

Exercise is particularly important for good health – helping reduce the risk of a range of illnesses and helping maintain mobility and increase life expectancy. We also need different types of exercise, to build strength, stamina and suppleness. 

Going to the gym is one popular way of exercising. Here we look at whether men and women have different agendas at the gym. 

Do men and women approach exercise at the gym differently? 

As an active gym member, I’ve seen that women predominantly go to classes whereas men use the machines and weight equipment. Is this just my gym? What does research evidence tell us? 

How many people are members of a gym? 

One in seven people in the UK is a member of a gym. That is the estimate in the 2016 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report, published by the Leisure Database Company. However, not all members continue to actively use gyms. 

Going to the gym is just one of many different ways of exercising and keeping fit. Walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dance, football, yoga and zumba are some of the many other options. 

What Motivates Gym Attendance? 

The Guardian suggests that increased gym membership is partly due to the growth of lower cost (budget) gyms and fitness technology (for example, fitness monitoring devices such as Fitbit). 

Studies from the University of North Georgia, reported in 2015, suggest that men are more likely to attend the gym for weight training whilst women are more likely to attend for cardio training. 

In a 2005 study based on research in a Manchester gym, the conclusion was that for many people, gym membership represents the desire to recapture ‘former glory’ by losing weight, toning up and/or getting fit. This research didn’t find significant differences in the reasons for men and women joining gyms. 

What Motivates Gym Choice? 

Research into fitness club membership by the University of Virginia published in 2010, suggests that women at the gym give more importance to appearance related issues (like losing weight), feeling in control and the qualities of the particular gym itself (convenience, extra amenities and time related factors) compared to men. 

Do Men And Women Have Different Approaches? 

Karen Miller–Kovich, the chief scientist at Weight Watchers, has studied the differences towards men and women’s attitudes towards weight loss – which is one potential reason people join gyms. Her study suggested four significant differences between men and women: 

  • • Men believed that weight loss involved only exercise whereas women also tended to attach importance to healthy eating.
  • • Men tended to enjoy exercise more than women: “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.”
  • • Women were likely to take small steps toward exercise goals while men were quick to make sweeping changes.
  • • Men chose to spend their time predominantly in the weight room whereas women mainly used the other gym areas. 

Another study suggested that women may limit time spent weight training to avoid ‘bulking’, choosing to spend longer on cardio training instead. 

What Do The Experts Say? 

Carol Sorgen, writing for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic has gathered opinions from a range of sport and fitness experts. These include:  

“Men work out because they like to be bigger…Women take instruction better” 

Vincent Perez, Director of Sports Therapy, Columbia University Medical Centre Eastside 

• “Men bring a sports mentality – ‘they do it because it’s fun, it’s competitive, and it’s something they’ve always done” 

Lori Incledon MD, author of Strength Training for Women 

“Women, interested in the social aspect of the gym, are more comfortable when they’re with other people. They also have a more holistic approach to fitness than men.”  

Cedric Bryant, Chief Exercise Physiologist, American Council on Exercise 

What about other factors, like age? 

Research by Nuffield Health suggests that older members now attend the gym more frequently than younger members.  

How Can We Best Use Gym Membership? 

Gym attendance may drop off some months after buying membership. Readers Digest suggests some techniques to prevent this: 

  • Choose a gym to suit your needs - like one with lots of different classes if variety will keep you more motivated
  • Location - consider whether a gym close to work or home is better
  • Opening hours - choose a gym with hours that allow you to exercise around an irregular schedule if needed
  • Mix exercise techniques - such as using classes and machines to add variety into routines and prevent boredom 

What Can Men Teach Women? 

According to orthopaedic surgeon Linda Kirilenko of the DeWitt Health Care Network, Virginia, women are increasingly willing to embark on weight training as awareness that lean muscle enhances weight loss increases. 

And "Men can teach women not to be afraid to work hard," says Pilates Instructor, Lisa Johnson.  

What can Women Teach Men? 

Conversely, Lisa Johnson suggests, women can teach men the value of a more holistic approach, trying out different types of exercise routines (both in the gym and outside). 

Learning from one other we can help ensure that the exercise we take builds strength, stamina and suppleness – as all three are important for our long term health. 

Regine Wong Published September 2012 

Reviewed July 2016 by Devika K K Jethwa. Next review date May 2019.

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