By Tom DiChiara
The Rumor: Men exercise one way, women another, and that's what works best
Walk into a gym, and you'll notice it right away: Men dominate the weight room, while women own the cardio machines and rule the yoga studio. It's not all that surprising really, given the male and female body ideals that permeate every print, digital and video image we willingly or not-so-willingly consume on a daily basis. Like it or not, cultural influences program us to picture the archetypal guy as strong and muscular without being too beefy (think Ryan Gosling), and the perfect woman as lean, toned and athletic-looking (an Evangeline Lily type).
But just because men predominantly prefer to pump iron while women favor sweating it out in a body-blast class doesn't mean we all can't benefit from borrowing a little workout wisdom from the opposite sex. In fact, it's quite, well, the opposite...
The Verdict: Taking workout cues from the opposite sex can elevate your fitness
Men: Mix it up. While women generally take a holistic approach to exercise, trying to give their entire bodies a workout with a mix of cardio, light weights and flexibility disciplines like yoga, men tend to have a bit of tunnel vision, focusing largely on upper-body-strength training. "There's more to fitness than just being strong," says Nonye Onyewu, Ph.D., the personal training director at Fitness First Health Clubs in Bethesda, Maryland. "In my experience, I see that more women are concerned about movement, and men are concerned about strength. A lot of guys don't realize that improving your movement patterns, your mobility and flexibility does increase your ability to get stronger." According to Onyewu, this is because by becoming more flexible, guys ensure that their tendons and muscles are stretched out better when they're weight training. As a result, "You can move better when you're actually engaging your muscles," Onyewu says. "And when your body gets to a point where it's trying to recruit muscle fiber, there's more surface area for it to recruit."
Men: Lighten up. Whether it's to showboat for onlookers or simply because they think it will help them get buff, guys often try to strength train with more weight than they can handle properly, resulting in a breakdown in form that leaves them looking like they're in the midst of a full-body dry heave with barbells. Women, on the other hand, tend to favor lighter weight that allows them to maintain correct form throughout their sets -- a practice men can certainly benefit from. "Always put form first," Onyewu insists. "Exercise is not just doing it; it's how you're doing it. When you start to fatigue or when weights get too heavy, you tend to compensate with some aspect of your body -- and that compensation leaves you more susceptible to injury." It also undercuts the benefits of the exercise. "Make sure that your form is correct so that the muscles you're trying to hit are hit properly," Onyewu advises. "That's the only way those muscles will develop so that you can go to a higher weight correctly."
Women: Step up. It may sound like women have the market cornered on stellar exercise habits, but there are a couple things they can learn from us guys. For starters, more exercise is better. That's not to say women (or men) should live in the gym, but a 2012 study conducted by researchers at Oregon State University found that men exercise almost twice as much as women in any given day -- with men tallying 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily compared to 18 minutes for women. According to the study, those who get 30 or more minutes of exercise a day are less likely to suffer from depression, high cholesterol and metabolic syndrome, a condition linked to obesity that can increase the risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. So, whether it's taking a brisk walk at lunch, making sure you hit a yoga class before dinner or simply tacking 12 minutes onto your treadmill session, be sure you get that 30 minutes in.
Women: Pump it up. Busy schedules can prevent women from working out as much as men, but inhibitions about bulking up, getting hurt or not being able to endure high-intensity activities could also be the culprit. "Your average female believes the myth that if she starts lifting weights, she's going to start bulking up and look like a man," says Onyewu. "That's definitely not the case." In fact, he emphasizes that strength training is even more of an imperative for women than it is for men. "Because you typically see a lot of bone-density issues like osteopenia and osteoporosis in women," he says, "females should look to incorporate a resistance and weight-bearing regimen within their weekly exercise routine."
That sounds like good advice for both sexes.