Yoga Mats Are From Venus, Barbells Are From Mars?
The other morning, after finishing my stretching workout, I made a pomegranate juice-soy protein powder-banana smoothie and read a thought-provoking article titled "How Men and Women Exercise Differently," by Washington Post fitness columnist Vicky Hallett. The gist is that male and female exercisers tend to have completely different approaches and regimens, and that each gender would benefit from trying what the other does.
According to the various fitness authorities that Hallett interviews, males tend to gravitate toward the sort of grimacing, screaming, flexing, barbell-heaving intensity that brings out our inner Sylvester Stallone (BTW, here here's a video of him training for The Expendables), while women tend to gravitate toward aerobics, yoga, Pilates and dance, as if their idea of an action hero role model is Natalie Portman in Black Swan. (Here's the exercise routine that she used to prepare for that role.)
In this meme, men are into reliving the sweaty machismo of their youth, while women are obsessed with losing weight and altering the shape of their posteriors. Hallett writes:
You can witness these opposing strategies -- and their weaknesses -- around almost any gym. Women clump by the cardio machines, regularly reading magazines and talking, thus lessening the effectiveness of their workouts. Men congregate around the largest of weights, which they proceed to pick up even if that requires heinous form.
The trainers and fitness researchers Hallett consults basically advise women to get over their fear of hoisting dumbbells and men to give downward dog and the tree pose a try for a change.
That's not such bad advice, but to quote my 11-year-old son, "Like, duh." While there are still some exercisers who fit Hallett's description perfectly, from what I've been seeing around me, the stereotypes she depicts are rapidly becoming obsolete, particularly among boomers. When I make it to the gym, I see plenty of guys toting yoga mats, and most of the people enthusiastically, if awkwardly, throwing Thai kicks and left hooks at the heavy bag in cardio kickboxing or grimacing on the leg press machine actually are women. The most obsessed marathoner that I know, the one who posts Facebook updates about her workouts on July days in Washington with torturous humidity, is female. The most chilled-out, New Age exerciser I can think of is a 50-something guy who teaches Tai Chi at my local community center, where at least half of his students are middle-aged men.
And while it's smart to have a well-rounded workout, I don't think you need to imitate the old stereotypes to get it. If you're a woman and you want to get stronger, for example, you don't want to follow the lead of that dwindling handful of guys who are stuck on 1970s bodybuilder-style pumping and flexing. There's plenty you can do with your own bodyweight or light dumbbells as resistance, particularly if you do your strength work on a Bosu balance trainer or a balance board to develop your nervous system's proprioceptive abilities. If you get nervous handling weights, Thera-Bands, which started out as a tool for physical therapy, are a safer alternative to barbells and dumbbells, and you can actually work some parts of your body more effectively with them. (If you're looking for a good guide to this new style of strength training, check out ProBodX: The Path to True Fitness by Marv Marinovich, a personal trainer of numerous professional athletes of both genders.)
For middle-aged men, yoga is a fine option, as is Pilates. But if flexibility gains are primarily what you're after, a straightforward stretching program probably will be easier to master, and you may make quicker progress. Bob Anderson's Stretching, first published in 1980 and since updated, is a good primer with easy-to-follow diagrams. If you're looking for something more avant-garde, try The Genius of Flexibility: The Smart Way to Stretch and Strengthen by Bob Cooley, who's developed a new approach called resistance stretching. (His most famous client is Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, who's credited her increased suppleness with helping her to win three silver medals at age 41 in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.)
But I think the best approach for boomers of either gender who want to become more well-rounded in their fitness is to get out of the gym altogether and take up a completely new pastime. Balance, agility and physical grace are attributes that you can't build on a weightlifting bench or elliptical trainer. Pick something that's outside your comfort zone and requires you to use your body -- and ideally, to think about yourself -- in a new and different way. I have friends who took up salsa dancing, ice skating and surfing in their forties, and another -- a two-time breast cancer survivor -- who goes to trapeze school and does great even with her reconstructed musculature. On a lark, I took up kung fu at age 48, and five years later I'm still at it, taking classes three times a week. I'm never going to kick Jaden Smith's butt, but I'm way more coordinated and flexible than I was 20 years ago.
BTW, I'd love to hear about whatever new athletic activities or types of exercises you've been trying. Tell me about them in the comments section. If you've discovered something that's really great, I may even do a future blog post about it.
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