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Women's Workout Guidelines Are Mostly Guesswork

When you start any new exercise routine, you’re deluged with guidelines. They come from your doctor, your trainer, your friends, the Internet, your yoga teacher and the hyper-fit chick on TV who tells you to do 50 jumping jacks a minute.

If you’re a woman, most of those guidelines are based on little more than guesswork. Most of the studies that have ever been done on exercise have been done with male only subjects. As two articles in the New York Times Well blog made clear this week, women’s bodies are not men’s, and we respond differently to exertion.

This is big news for female athletes, but it also matters for moms getting back in shape with a little spring training. Whether you’re training for a triathlon or just trying to get up to speed running errands on your bike, you want to do it in a way that helps your body. You certainly don’t want to hurt yourself.

Recent studies have found that:

  • Women’s maximum heart rates for workouts have been calculated too high, by assuming they are simply small men. In fact, our hearts operate at a lower maximum rate most of the time, and our workouts should be adjusted accordingly.
  • Women don’t get the benefits men do from eating protein after exercise. In fact, there’s some evidence that protein may cause muscle pain and tiredness in female athletes.
  • Women don’t load carbs into their muscles the way men do. We burn more fat during workouts and fewer carbs. Probably anyone who’s been using weights for any length of time could have told you that women don’t bulk out the way men do. Science is finally catching up with why.

The main takeaway at this stage is just that women have been underrepresented in exercise studies. More research on female athletes is needed. You can’t assume that a much-touted breakthrough in exercise or nutrition will apply to you if the study subjects were all sporting Y chromosomes.

Photo:  Ed Yourdon

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