Whose idea of fitness is better?
The experts say there's no one-size-fits-all answer, but each sex could learn something from the other.
Vive La Difference
Motivation, the experts say, is one major fitness difference between the sexes.
Often, "men work out because they like to be bigger," says Vincent Perez, PT, director of sports therapy at Columbia University Medical Center Eastside in New York. "Pecs, biceps, quads ? men are after bulk."
"Guys have an agenda," adds Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body-for-LIFE for Women: A Woman's Plan for Physical and Mental Transformation. "They have a specific goal, and there's always a number involved." She calls this the "Home Depot" approach to working out: "They have a blueprint and they just want to get it done."
For many men, "working out is a sport, and they do it because it's fun, it's competitive, and it's something that they've always done," says Lori Incledon, author of Strength Training for Women. "For women, fitness is a superficial issue. They do it because it will help them look better."
Men like to look like they've been working out, says Peeke, "the sweatier the better. When was the last time you heard a woman say she wanted to sweat?"
Often, she says, "women think everyone else is looking at them so they're afraid to put on workout clothes or get out there in public with their cellulite jiggling. Do men care what they look like when they're working out? Of course not!"
One thing men and women have in common, according to Incledon: They tend to overlook the health benefits of exercise.
"Very rarely does anyone think about fitness like they should, which is just to stay healthy," says Incledon.
Mars vs. Venus Workouts
Once they get past their initial reluctance, women tend to have a balanced approach to fitness, says Perez. Their workouts are more likely to include a mix of cardio, strength training, and mind-body practices such as yoga or tai chi.
They're also more likely to seek advice, he says, whether from a personal trainer or by enrolling in group classes.
"As a man, I hate to say this, but women take instruction better," says Perez. "Men are afraid of making a fool of themselves."
"Most men prefer athletic-based activities that don't require dance or overt coordination," agrees Grace De Simone, a spokesperson for Gold's Gym International. "They prefer activities that they can call on from their past, like sports. Women enjoy dance-based activities with toning and flexibility."
Women may be more apt to take part in group activities because they're interested in the social aspects of working out and because they feel more comfortable in a gym when they're with other people, says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
True, men frequently show up in classes such as "boot camp" workouts. But women dominate other classes, especially those that touch on mind-body techniques.
"Men are more interested in just a workout," says Bryant. "Women have a more holistic approach to fitness."
No matter what kind of workout they prefer, women generally work out less than men, with most citing lack of time as a reason, according to Amy Eyler, PhD, assistant professor of community health at Saint Louis University School of Public Health. Eyler is the editor of a book on physical activity among women, Environmental, Policy and Cultural Factors Related to Physical Activity in a Diverse Sample of Women.
"Women are too busy taking care of others to take care of themselves," Eyler says in a news release. "Their dedication to family presents substantial time and logistical barriers to being physically active."
According to Peeke, women are "hardwired" to be caregivers: "We'll take care of anything that comes within 100 feet of us, whether it needs it or not."
Yet "it's important to fight for the right to take care of yourself," Peeke says. She tells her patients that "the best caregiver is a healthy caregiver."
The Physical Differences
Of course, the physical differences between men and women also affect how they approach fitness.
"There is a difference between what men and women can do and should do," says Margie Weiss, a personal trainer and group exercise director for three Gold's Gyms in the Washington, D.C., area.
For example, women's pelvises tilt more than men, so they may need to do a slightly different type of squat to protect their lower backs. This might mean turning the feet outward a bit, standing with the legs slightly wider apart, and not going down so low, Weiss says.
Because women have less muscle mass than men, they won't bulk up as much, says Perez. But, he says, they should still use lighter weights than men to avoid the injuries that come from "too much, too often."
As a rule, men's bodies tend to be less flexible, says Pilates instructor Lisa Johnson of Brookline, Mass. But she believes that's less because of the nature of their bodies than because they're less likely to include stretching in their workouts.
Men also tend to have better upper body strength than women. "But that is where their vanity lies, and they work harder to keep those areas of their body better defined," Johnson observes.
Similarly, "women also tend to have better lower body strength, but I think that has more to do with wanting to keep our tushies and legs in shape than any physiological reason," Johnson says.
Learning From Each Other
While there are differences in how men and women view fitness, some experts find the gaps are narrowing.
For example, women are becoming less intimidated by weight training. That's probably because they're learning that lean muscle goes a long way to helping them lose weight, says Linda Kirilenko, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at DeWitt Health Care Network in Virginia and a certified personal trainer.
There are many other areas in which men and women can learn from each other (and not just when it comes to fitness, but that's another story!).
"Men can teach women not to be afraid to work hard," says Johnson. "Women are still wary of looking like a body builder, and are afraid they will injure themselves.
"Women can often handle more than they think they can, but because they've never pushed themselves that hard, they think they might tear a muscle or overtrain to the point of injury."
Her advice to women? "A couple of sessions with a qualified personal trainer will help you set your levels so you can find out when to push and when to ease off," she says.
On the other side, women can teach men that fitness can be fun, says Johnson. She points out that many women have tried a variety of exercise routines, both in the gym and out -- step classes, indoor cycling classes, Pilates, yoga, and so on.
"Most of the men in my Pilates studio were dragged in by their wives who were hoping to fix their aching joints," she says. "There was no way they were going to try something so different on their own."
Yes, a guy might feel a little silly in a belly-dancing class, Johnson agrees, but most fitness options offer variety without sacrificing "manliness." "And the different movement patterns of, say, yoga, Pilates, or dance classes can increase balance, core strength, and flexibility in a fun, challenging way."