Are Women Tougher Physically Than Men?

runningIt’s bragging rights time for women… science is backing the belief that women can exercise longer than men before getting tired, according to a new study.

It’s not because women are stronger; men are actually more powerful than comparably fit females. But here’s the point: Women’s muscles tend to be more resistant to fatigue than men’s, which means they can perform at the same relative intensity for a longer duration than men.

“I may not be able to bench-press the same amount of weight as a big muscle-bound guy, but if you ask us both to perform a contraction at 100% of our maximum strength and sustain it as long as we can, I should be able to outperform him," explains study author Sandra Hunter, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at Marquette University.

The new study highlights an issue with many other studies pertaining to physical activity, they are most often conducted on men only.

But exercise routines designed for best results in men may not be as well suited for women, suggests the small number of studies that have involved both genders. Hunter reviewed these studies in her paper and encouraged scientists to add to them with their future work. 

“The bottom line of training or rehab is that you have to fatigue a muscle in order to increase its strength,” Hunter told Health. “So if men and women fatigue differently, they should be treated differently.” This is especially important during physical therapy after injuries, surgery, or a diagnosis of osteoarthritis, she adds.

Studies have shown that women retain more strength in their legs after running a marathon or cycling for a long period of time. In other tests, women have been able to hold isometric contractions (think making a fist or flexing a bicep) for longer durations than men, when performed at the same percentage of their maximum strength.

Gender advantages vary by activity, as well. Women burn more fat and fewer carbohydrates then men during sustained exercise, "which sets them up to perform, potentially for longer periods of time, if they’re going at the same intensity as men," Hunter says. But they have smaller hearts, smaller muscles, and more body fat than men, so it can be hard for them to keep up with men in a sport like running.

So does that mean we can declare women to be tougher physically than men? Well probably not… basic physiological strength advantages will likely always mean that men will outperform women when it comes to physical activity and ability, but performance gaps will continue to narrow as women’s sports programs continue to grow and improve.