Gender and Weight Loss: How Your Sex Affects Your Success

No, this is not an article on that ever-popular question about whether sex counts as aerobic exercise. (It doesn't. Get over it.) No, this article is about gender differences in exercise and weight loss. This is your chance to get the facts you need to answer such burning questions as:
  • Does weight training cause women to bulk up and look like one of the guys?
  • Is it really easier for men to lose weight?
  • Do men and women of the same weight need different calorie intakes?
  • Should men and women utilize different approaches to exercise?
  • Are men and women different in their reasons and motivation for losing weight?
  • Do men secretly worry that their outfits make their butts look bigger?
Let's get the facts!

Body Shape and Bulking Up: The Testosterone Factor

FACT: Most women (and many men, for that matter) will not build large muscles in response to weight training—especially while restricting calorie intake for weight loss. The ability to build large muscles depends mostly on levels of the male sex hormone, testosterone. Every person has some amount of both testosterone and estrogen, but the average man has 20 to 30 times more testosterone than the average woman. But even this amount is not enough to allow every man to build large muscles. The bottom line is that relatively few men, and very few women, will end up looking like bodybuilders, even with extensive weight training.

The difference in testosterone levels among men and women is also responsible for gender differences in total body fat percentage and fat distribution (where the body stores fat). On average, women have seven to 10 percent more body fat than men, and correspondingly less muscle mass. Minimum ("essential") body fat percentages are about 12 percent for women, and four percent for men. This difference in body composition means that men typically have higher metabolic rates and will usually need more calories (about 300 more per day) than women of comparable weights, because muscle burns more calories than fat.

Men tend to be apple shaped, storing more body fat in the upper body (known as "central" fat) and within the body cavity, which is called "visceral" fat. Women tend to be pear shaped, storing more fat in the hips and thighs (known as "peripheral" fat), and beneath the layer of skin, which is called "subcutaneous" fat. This explains why women also tend to have visible cellulite more often than men.

Weight Loss: Not All Fat is Created Equal

FACT: Although all body fat is made of the same "stuff," where it's stored can make a big difference in both how risky it is to your health, and in how easy it is to lose. As a general rule, visceral fat (located in the upper body cavity) represents a greater health risk, but is easier to lose than peripheral fat (located in the hips, thighs, and limbs). This is because visceral fat, which is metabolically active, is the body’s preferred energy source when fat is burned as fuel.

Therefore, men (and women) who are "apple" shapes will have an easier time losing fat—especially in the beginning. The bad news is that their greater proportion of visceral fat (big, firm, beer belly) puts them at a much higher risk of obesity-related diseases than people who are "pear" shapes and who store more subcutaneous fat (soft love handles, spare tires, or rolls of belly or back fat).

This does not mean that it's impossible to lose subcutaneous or peripheral fat. If you maintain a caloric deficit, your body will burn fat from wherever you have it stored. In general, most people lose fat deposits in a "first on, last off" pattern. Those pesky problem spots will most likely be problem spots to the bitter end, unfortunately. And weight loss is not likely to change your basic body shape—just your size.

Fitness and Performance

FACT: Although women naturally carry additional body fat, it does not impair fitness, performance, or health. In fact, women who reduce their body fat below 12 percent may experience loss of menstruation, bone density problems, and an increased risk for breast and endometrial cancers, as well as other problems associated with poor nutrition.

Gender differences in muscle size, speed, and strength are mainly the result of testosterone-related differences in the quantity of muscle mass. There’s no evidence of gender differences in the quality of the muscle itself. Women will respond equally well to both strength training and aerobic exercise, improving in strength, endurance, speed and efficiency.

The maximum intensity and duration women can achieve during aerobic exercise is typically five to 10 percent less than their male counterparts. This is because women typically have five to 10 percent less hemoglobin (an iron-containing protein in red blood cells that helps deliver oxygen to working muscles). Women who find themselves unable to work out as hard or as long for no apparent reason (or during that time of month) should ensure they're getting enough iron, vitamins and B vitamins. If the problem persists, get checked for iron deficiency and anemia.

Body Image & Body Satisfaction

Recent national studies involving over 11,000 high school students and 60,000 adults found the following differences in how males and females feel about their bodies:
  • Among adults, 48 percent of women and 26 percent of men described themselves as overweight, while 38 percent of the women and 24 percent of the men were trying to lose weight at the time of the survey.
  • Men showed a greater tendency to see their weight as normal when it was actually above normal according to their BMI; women were more likely to see themselves as overweight with a normal BMI.
  • Among high school students, 44 percent of the females and 15 percent of the males were trying to lose weight. Females were four times more likely to restrict calorie intake than boys, who more often reported using exercise as a weight-loss method.
  • Fifty-five percent of women reported being dissatisfied with their weight, compared to 41 percent of men. Both men and women rated "health concerns" lower than appearance and social acceptance as reasons for their dissatisfaction. Although excess body fat was the number one cause of dissatisfaction for both men and women, over 60 percent of men (and only 10 percent of women) reported being significantly distressed about lack of muscle development.
  • Among individuals who were classified as underweight according to their BMI, 83 percent of women reported that they liked their appearance, compared to 77 percent of men.
  • Males were significantly more likely to report that regular exercise made them feel good about their bodies, while women were more likely to report that changes in their weight influenced how they felt.
  • The magazines most read by women had 10 times more diet and weight-loss related content than magazines read by men, which featured content related to body building, fitness, muscle toning and muscle building supplements.
  • Males and females reported similar problems with emotional eating. However, men were more likely to report high-protein foods such as meat as "comfort foods," while women were more likely to turn to high-carbohydrate foods such as sweets.
Despite their apparent lack of fashion sense, men are very much concerned about their appearance. In fact, men and women share the same obsession—washboard abs. But the genders differ when it comes to other major concerns. Women tend to focus on firm, round gluteus maximus muscles, while men pursue the overdevelopment of biceps and triceps muscles.

Speaking on behalf of men everywhere who have been rejected (on aesthetic grounds) from membership to the Federation of Muscle Shirt Wearers, this writer wants to express his appreciation to those women (and men) who remain firm in their convictions that it's not the packaging that's important, but what's on the inside that counts.