Since 1910, the 8th of March has been considered globally by many as a day to celebrate women. International Women’s Day Organization 2020 is supporting a number of important and laudable missions including highlighting and applauding important gains that are being made, celebrating women’s achievements and accomplishments, and taking a stance to call out and raise awareness about inequality. They also encourage everyone to “do what you can to truly make a positive difference for women”.
I’m going to try and tackle that last piece here. It’s important to encourage equality between men and women. And it’s important to recognize and embrace how we are typically different.
Today, I would like to highlight a few ways that many women differ from many men biologically. I’m going to write about how we can embrace and address those difference to ensure we live lives that are filled with vitality, strength, power, self-confidence, and happiness. Because strong, healthy bodies are often happy bodies. And when women and men prioritize their own physical health and well-being, they set an incredible and inspiring example for all those around them; and therefore, exude a positive impact on the physical health and well-being of those they love.
This article is for everyone: The interesting phenomena discussed below tend to affect women markedly more than men. Some women will experience none of these phenomena in their lifetimes and some men may experience some or even all of them. And we might have partners, sisters, daughters, mothers, and friends we love, that would benefit from the facts and ideas discussed below.
30 Second Edition:
- Muscle %
- The “Q” Angle
- Intermittent Fasting
- Weight Loss as a Goal
Women generally carry less muscle, and therefore, more adipose tissue, on our frames compared to men.
Important segue: We carry two kinds of fat in our bodies, essential fat required for optimal function of our body systems (organs, the central nervous system and muscles) and stored fat which is used for energy. For women our essential body fat sits around 12% while men’s is somewhere around 3%. So, the MINIMUM body fat % to ensure optimal health is significantly higher in women than men. There are also a lot of interesting differences in fat storage, but this section is about muscle.
Everything we can do to maintain the muscle we have, and even build more if possible, is a win.
A few reminders of the benefits of muscle:
- You are stronger. That sounds so obvious – but it’s a simple fact we sometimes overlook. I’m hoping to be a grandmother one day, but given that my boys are 7 and 9, I will likely be over 65 before that happens. And I hope to carry my grandchildren on my shoulders. That will take strength!
- Muscle tissue is metabolically active – so supports higher energy, higher metabolic rates, and less muscle fatigue.
- More skeletal muscle helps moderate insulin levels.
- Active muscle pulls on our bones, encouraging stronger bones. Specific strength training exercise will also pull on the bones in a manner than helps the skeleton counter the effects of gravity. More on that later.
You’re a member of the Cambridge Group of Clubs. You know how to build muscle. If your preferred activities engage more lower body muscles (cycling, running, some group ex classes) or are asymmetrical in nature (squash, some martial arts) then please layer in specific resistance training to balance this out. Reach out to me if you need some help. We’d be happy to cover the cost of a session with one of our incredible personal trainers.
The “Q Angle”:
Aka the quadriceps angle, describes the vector of pull exerted by the quadriceps muscle on the patella. Simply put, wider hips relative to the knees, will tend to pull the knees out of line. Typical Q angles in men range between 8 and 14 degrees, and 11 to 20 degrees in women. In general, individuals with Q angles greater than 14, tend to have knee joints that are less stable and under more stress. They also may be at higher risk for specific types of knee injury, including:
- Patellofemoral pain syndrome
- Chondromalacia of the knee
- ACL injuries
What can help:
- Glute activation: I’m not going to detail much here. Simply put, anything and everything that encourages a stronger backside is a good thing for the majority of Canadians!
- Glute activation through external rotation: For some, a greater Q angle is associated with internal rotation of the femur. Slightly modifying your current exercise routine so that you are encouraging a little more external rotation can be beneficial. For example, before you begin your squat, think about slightly rotating your thigh bones outwards from where these long bones connect with your pelvis or hips. You should notice your glutes firing a little. As you squat down, this external rotation should encourage your knees to track in line with your toes, and not cave in. You can try similar adjustments with your deadlift, lunges, and leg press. The trick is be subtle. No huge mechanical adjustments please!
- Strengthen your VMO: Your vastus medialis oblique (VMO) is the muscle that lies on the inside half of the front of your thigh. One of its key roles is ensuring optimal tracking and control of the patella when the knee is both bent and straight. Ensuring this muscle is strong will help balance the lateral pull created by a steeper Q angle.
- Seated knee extension
- Standing terminal knee extension
- Heel drops
My current knowledge on this topic is far too limited for me to do more than brush the surface. But I feel compelled to say something as there is good evidence to support that intermittent fasting may affect women quite differently from men, and indeed may not be beneficial for certain women.
So, please consult a trusted healthcare practitioner before considering this practice. A few quick facts:
- Fasting seems to more significantly impact women’s hormones compared to men’s.
- It may disrupt the menstrual cycle – which can be detrimental to overall health irrespective of whether or not you are trying to conceive.
- It can have a negative impact on women’s blood sugar levels, sleep, and metabolism.
- Women may be more likely to struggle with increased stress and anxiety when following fasting protocols.
- Women may find it more difficult to exercise in a fasted state.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying women can’t benefit from intermittent fasting. If you are compelled by the potential benefits, please ensure you are careful about the protocol you decide to follow, as a lot of the literature out there is based on evidence using male bodies. And please tune back in 4 weeks. I’m going to dive into this topic and look forward to sharing the research and my thoughts in April!
Age-related hyperkyphosis is an exaggerated anterior curvature in the thoracic spine. It affects between 20-40% of North American adults and is increasing in both prevalence and severity. It is twice as common in women, in part due to less muscle mass and bone density: as the bones in the spine and the muscles that support it become weaker the vertebrae shift and become susceptible to compression fractures. That said, the causes are complex and can vary significantly from one individual to the next, but one thing is certain: strength and mobility exercises targeting the spine, shoulder girdle, core, and pelvis are total game changers. They can slow the progression, potentially reverse some of the curvature, and – started early enough – help you avoid the challenge all together. Now if that doesn’t make you sit up straight and pay attention, I’m not sure what will?!
In terms of mobility, look to increase the active ROM in the pecs, hip flexors, and thoracic spine. Do your mobility often, and definitely prior to your strength training.
Some of my favourite strength exercises for anyone wanting to improve posture:
- Rows (seated, standing, kneeling, cable, dumbbell…)
- Supine Y’s
- Reverse Flyes
- Band Pull Aparts
- Dead Bugs
- Bird Dogs
A few subtle and important steps before your strength work:
- Gently extend through the thoracic spine first (think “tall spine” – put a toilet plunger on your head and traction yourself up towards the ceiling)
- Open up your chest (drop the shoulders down and back, slightly expand the top of the ribcage, think “wide collarbone”, “headlights up!”)
- Draw your shoulder blades down and back.
- Check your low back. These subtle adjustments around your shoulders and mid back will tend to – in many of us – encourage the low back to arch in a not so good way. Brace the abdominal muscles to readjust to neutral spine. It may be helpful to think about tucking the tailbone under a little or closing or “knitting” the bottom of the ribcage and drawing it down towards the top of the hip bones.
Please avoid exercises that encourage spinal flexion. If you’re an avid cyclist, consider raising your handlebars, and practice incorporating the 4 steps above into your cycling posture.
Weight Loss as a Goal:
Loads of people join gyms, and start new or change up existing exercise routines with the goal of losing weight. There is some evidence to support that weight loss goals are more prevalent in women than men, though I believe this trend is shifting. So, while the following notes are based on longitudinal studies involving women and my own experiences working with women, I am quite confident all genders will find some great insights from the following:
- The most important factor to consider for weight loss is food: altering how, when, and what you eat.
- While exercise isn’t always the most effective way to lose weight, it is vital for keeping weight off. People who diet only tend to regain the weight. People who exercise and diet are far more likely to keep it off.
- If you begin an exercise program or join a gym with the sole goal of weight loss or appearance improvement, you are far less likely to stick with your exercise program and far less likely to lose the weight. You are more likely to get frustrated, feel rotten about your body, and blame yourself.
HOWEVER, if you balance that weight or appearance centered goal with focusing on other outcomes that are important to you – socializing, better health, becoming stronger, becoming faster, fitter, more powerful, reducing stress, improving memory, taking care of yourself, building your bones, having more energy – you are far more likely to continue to exercise, start to feel great about yourself, better about your body, and – ironically? – far more likely to alter you body composition.
Making Yourself A Priority:
Women are important. Women are wonderful. Women are key for the property, health, vitality, and happiness of this planet. That makes us an incredibly valuable natural resource. And so, we must care for ourselves as such. Of course, caring for such a dynamic, powerful resource is complicated. And there are simple steps too: Make yourself a priority. Give yourself time and space to rest and recover. Feed yourself delicious, colourful, nutritious foods. Ask someone to prepare these for you once in while. Exercise in a way that makes you feel wonderful…and ensures you are and remain strong and stable. And if you think a little help, advice, knowledge, support, or a kick in the pants would help – for goodness sake let me know. I’d love to lend a hand if I can.
There are a whole lot of people who count on you. Who love you. And their world is a far better place with you in it. So, they can wait 30 minutes while you go for a run. They can live without you over the lunch hour while you go to a spin class. They can – and will – help you with the laundry, grocery shopping, HR agenda, vegetables that need to be chopped, hockey practices, new hires, follow-up phone calls – if you ask and delegate. So, please, make taking care of yourself a TOP priority. You deserve it. You’re worth it. We need you.
Meg Sharp, MSc., B.Ed.Kin, FST Executive Director of Personal Training CGoC
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