Should Men and Women Exercise Differently? Scientist Explains

Dr. Paul Arciero, a nutrition and sports scientist, says that even though men and women benefit differently from exercising at different times of the day, the best time for training is the one that an individual prefers.

Key takeaways:

Arciero is a professor at the Health and Human Physiological Sciences Department at Skidmore College. He is the author of the book The Protein Pacing Diet and more than 60 peer-reviewed research studies on performance nutrition and exercise training.

You recently published a study on how men and women benefit differently from exercising at different times of the day. Why do they respond differently?

We don't know why exactly, but hormones are most likely one of the main reasons why men and women differ in the time of the day they exercise in terms of the benefits from a health standpoint and a physical performance standpoint. Those two are different things, although they are very related.

Another likely reason is that some definite cellular biochemical pathways are different. We have evidence to support that men and women respond to different types of exercise in terms of how their cells respond.

Are some types of exercise more beneficial to one sex than another when, for example, trying to lose weight?

Everyone is looking for that magic bullet to lose weight, and diet still reigns supreme. We know that what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat play the biggest role in changing our weight. And in this case, reducing our weight and our body composition.

Exercise is a wonderful addition to the nutrition component. One of the areas of intense research I have been pursuing for the last 30 years is identifying what types of exercise are the most beneficial for our health, weight loss, body composition, and physical performance. We found that four main types of exercise appear to be the most helpful.

Number one is resistance training, such as traditional weight training and functional resistance training. For women, resistance training offers the greatest return on investment from exercise.

Number two is high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or sprint interval training (SIT). That is extremely beneficial to favorably impacting our body weight and composition. Scientists and healthcare providers know that improving body composition is much more important than losing weight.

Number three is stretching, flexibility, and mobility exercise, in the form of yoga, traditional stretching, tai chi, or pilates.

Number four is cardiovascular exercise — endurance, aerobic exercise, which is also beneficial to lose weight or change our body composition.

Besides the time of the day and types of exercise, what other factors should be considered when creating your exercise routine and setting your exercise goals?

The next most important thing after what and when we eat, and in what type of exercise and at what time of the day we engage, is ensuring that we get the required amount of sleep.

The golden rule is somewhere between six and eight hours. For younger women and men, the sweet spot is seven to nine hours, with six hours being an absolute minimum.

Stress reduction is also very important. We know that stress tremendously negatively impacts our response to a healthy lifestyle.

So we can adopt all the healthy lifestyles we want, but if we are not getting the proper amount of sleep or we are exposed to a lot of stress, that is going to negatively impact the benefit of those healthy lifestyle strategies.

Are there any types of exercise that can cause stress?

I always tell people that the best time of the day to exercise is the one best for them. When you start to force exercise to a particular time of the day, it can be stressful.

For many people, doing high-intensity or resistance exercise later in the day often negatively impacts their sleep pattern. That's why it is better to do stretching, flexibility, or endurance exercise later in the day, which seems to be better for sleep.

If you are carrying extra life stresses, for example, you have taken a new job, or your family or financial situation has changed, exercising is often very helpful to deal with that stress.

But when things build up and multiply, sometimes it is best to avoid strenuous, intense exercise under those conditions. And instead, choose less stressful, better emotional boosting forms of exercising, like stretching or endurance.

Can we regulate hormonal imbalance by exercising?

Our body has natural circadian rhythms, releasing various hormones at certain times of the day.

We can definitely manifest the benefit from our body naturally releasing hormones during the course of the day when we exercise. As our research showed, performing early morning exercise is better for fat burning.

Whereas late afternoon or early evening is an ideal time to benefit from performance exercise because those hormones seem to be the highest, and body temperature is always the highest at that time. And that favors more intense forms of exercise, such as resistance training and HIIT.

Women experience hormone fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. So how could they optimize workouts based on the phase of their cycle?

That is an ongoing intense area of research right now. There has been recently published research on that, and the bottom line takeaway was still when it fits best for an individual. So when women are going through the menstrual cycle, they should exercise when they are most likely to want to engage in certain types of exercise.

What we haven't really talked about is a chronotype, which is a preference to exercise at a certain time of the day. Some people are just naturally inclined to choose exercise early in the morning, and that's when they should do it. This would also apply to women during various phases of the menstrual cycle.

What are the benefits of the protein pacing diet?

What we have been doing in our lab for the last 30 years is identifying the distribution of the quality of protein we consume, as well as the amount and at what time of the day we should be optimizing protein intake.

Looking at all those factors, we know that animal and plant protein sources can be extremely beneficial and healthy. However, just by its design, animal protein is of higher quality and bioavailability to the human body. So we benefit better from consuming the same amount of animal protein, but it does not mean we cannot do that with plant protein. We just have to be smarter about how we do it.

Whey protein has the highest quality; egg protein is very good; beef, chicken, pork, and fish are also very high animal protein sources. It is very important to try to get these protein sources free range, wild, and organic as much as possible.

In terms of plant protein, you want to choose several different types to optimize and maximize your body's uptake of that protein. That's why it is essential to combine grains and vegetables with nuts and seeds, legumes, beans, tofu, soybeans, rice protein, etc.

We know that the ideal protein pacing for adults is between 20 and 40 grams per serving, with 20 grams at the minimum. Whereas younger adolescents should aim for 15-20 grams of high-quality protein every time they eat.

For weight loss and muscle building, we want to strive for closer to 30-40 grams of protein each time we eat. However, people who are at a healthy weight and want to maintain their health status and exercise routine should aim for somewhere between 25-30 grams per meal.

Timing is also important. We want to consume four servings of high-quality protein a day. Scientifically, we know that we should start within one hour of waking up in the morning and then continue every 3,5 to 4 hours throughout the day, with the last eating within two hours of going to sleep at night.

The vast majority of the population following this diet will experience significant health benefits in terms of their body composition, weight, and physical performance. And science supports it at a very high level.

Could this diet be harmful to people with certain health conditions?

Very rarely. Individuals with significant kidney deficiency or disease must monitor the amount of protein they take in. They don't want to avoid all protein, but they must be careful not to consume too much protein. However, protein pacing is not even close to high protein intake.

These people can benefit from protein pacing by taking smaller amounts — 10 to 20 grams instead of 20 to 40 grams. Everybody else would benefit tremendously from protein pacing.

To sum up, should men and women exercise differently?

The data shows that men seem to benefit from exercising in the morning and in the evening, with few exceptions. Those who trained in the evening experienced a slightly greater reduction in blood pressure and feeling of fatigue. Meanwhile, their bodies burned fat better when exercising in the morning.

When it comes to women, there is little disagreement with this. Exercising in the morning seems to be the most beneficial if they want to reduce body fat, especially in their belly region. In the study, women also reduced their blood pressure by exercising in the morning.

When women exercised in the evening, they got stronger, especially in their upper body. Moreover, their physical performance increased significantly, and they had a boost in their mood.

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