What women can learn from men about health

Hugh Wilson
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Women's health
Walk into any gym and you'll find men pumping iron and women pounding the treadmill. Women are more likely to focus on cardiovascular exercise, while men mix sessions of cardiovascular and resistance training.
Hugh Wilson

If you value your health, it's pretty handy to be a woman. Almost daily, a new research paper is published on why — when it comes to health — men are the weaker sex. Women live longer than men, adopt healthier habits, and are less self-destructive.

But while that may be true, it's not quite as simple as that. Yes, women do tend to outlive their partners and are, very generally, the healthier sex.

But that doesn't mean there isn't quite a lot you can still learn from the boys.

Because men are not complete no-hopers when it comes to health. In areas like dieting, exercise, sleep and mental health, they're sometimes streets ahead. So if you want to be as healthy as you can be, take a few tips from the other side of the gender divide. Here are the best ones.

Team sports
Many women give up on team sports after school, and — if they do any regular exercise at all — tend to swim, jog or join the gym. But team sports have unique benefits.

One study by the University of Copenhagen showed that team play makes women physically fitter and emotionally healthier. In particular, women who played football became less self-absorbed and more team focused. The other point about team sports is how much fun they are. Men love them, and a very male obsession with team sports is the most reliable way to ensure exercise is a long-term lifestyle choice rather than a short-term fad.

Hit the gym, not the fridge
But however they do it, men are good at exercising. By which we mean that they never seem bothered about getting sweaty and red in the face, and they're not shy about showing their beer bellies in the changing rooms. The lucky so-and-sos don't even have any make-up to ruin.

And most importantly, men use exercise in the same way many women use food. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, one in three women use food to cope with stress, while only one in five men do. When men feel stressed, they take it out on the rowing machine or the resistance weights — not the chocolate counter.

Work the weights
Walk into any gym and you'll find men pumping iron and women pounding the treadmill. Women are more likely to focus on cardiovascular exercise, while men mix sessions of cardiovascular and resistance training.

And the boys have got the balance right. Resistance training builds muscle, and muscle burns fat. As your lean muscle increases so does your resting metabolism, which means you burn more kilojoules even when you're not exercising.

And you don't have to pump iron to see the benefits. Sit-ups, push-ups and walking up stairs can all build muscle mass.

Snack healthily
If you're feeling a bit low, what pick-me-up do you reach for? According to a study by Cornell University, if you're a typical woman, it will be a sweet treat like chocolate or biscuits. If you're a man, it's more likely to be a juicy steak.

And while steak and chips might not be healthy, it is protein, meaning you feel fuller for longer. Sugar gives you a short-lived insulin high, and quickly leaves you craving more.

Be less emotional
"Emotional intelligence" is one of the buzz phrases of the age. Women are said to have it, and men lack it. Having plenty of emotional intelligence is a positive thing.

But being overly emotional isn't. Men tend to keep their emotions in check, and a study at Columbia University's Teachers College found that those who did so were better adjusted and became less distressed by events.

In contrast, women tend to emote to anyone who'll listen. That can make you feel better in the short term, but sifting through all the conflicting advice can leave you confused and less able to take the decisive action that solves problems.

Give guilt the elbow
Another study by Cornell University found that women experience 50 percent more guilt after indulging in unhealthy food than men. And guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. Guilt will make you question whether there's any point in trying to eat healthily at all.

And men? Well, they eat a bar of chocolate, enjoy it, and then start again with the healthy eating the next day.

According to Dr Tim Gill, an expert in nutrition and exercise, "if a man has a day when he eats too much, he'll probably shrug and begin his eating plan again the next day. Whereas women tend to feel that they've ruined their chances at weight loss if they 'slip up'."

Don't always multitask
Famously, women often multitask, juggling writing emails, cooking the dinner and giving sisterly advice to a friend on the phone about her man trouble. And apparently, they're hardwired to do it. Research from the University of California has shown that the area connecting the right part of the brain to the left is thicker in women, allowing more ideas to flow.

That can have its advantages, but not always. Men tend to ring fence an important task, and give it their full attention. Studies by Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, have found that when people are continually juggling jobs, they work faster but produce less. Important tasks may be better tackled the male way.

Worry less, sleep better
According to a study for the National Sleep Foundation, women are up to twice as likely as men to have difficulty falling and staying asleep and to experience more daytime sleepiness.

That can be because of biological factors, like pregnancy and menstrual-related hormone fluctuations. But stress plays a big part too. Men are better at putting the worries of the day to bed, before they go to bed.

One theory is that women are hardwired to agonise over problems, and that's backed up by the fact that twice as many women as men are diagnosed with depression.

Women tend to mull problems over for longer and are more emotion-focused, while men quickly centre on one potential solution. It might not work, but knowing you might have a practical answer to a tricky problem certainly helps you sleep at night.

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