Who exercises more, men or women?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published September 10, 2021

Key Takeaways

As members of society, we often hear of the importance of exercise. To be sure, exercise decreases risk of disease and death. Yet the most recent government statistics on physical activity are sobering—only 24% of American adults aged 18 years and older meet current federal guidelines for aerobic physical activity and muscle strengthening.

Intriguingly, research has shown that exercise levels vary by race/ethnicity, income, and biologic sex. With respect to sex, men and women apparently exercise for different reasons, according to studies. 

While research is limited on this topic, a small number of studies do suggest that men and women differ in their exercise patterns and motivations. Let’s take a closer look.   

Exercise levels in youth

Findings of a cross-sectional study published in JAMA Pediatrics, which involved 9,472 US adolescents and young adults, suggested striking disparities in exercise among adolescent boys and girls, as well as racial differences.

Overall, 50.4% of the sample were male participants, with a mean age of 20.6 years. Female participants across all demographic categories reported less physical activity than did male participants. White male participants were most likely to exercise (89.3%). Black female participants aged between 18 and 24 years were least likely to exercise (45%). 

In those who exercised, Black male participants aged 18 to 24 years reported the longest duration of 77.9 minutes per day, with Black female participants aged 25 to 29 years reporting the shortest duration at 33.2 minutes per day. After compensating for covariates, White race, younger age, and higher income were linked to greater levels of physical activity.

The researchers found that the number of adolescents and young adults who were physically active dropped from adolescence to young adulthood. This drop was steepest from age 12 to 17 years to age 18 to 24 years vs age 25 to 29 years, with differences greatest in male participants. 

“The reasons for the reduced physical activity may include increased demands on adolescent and young adult time (eg, more school work, employment) and fewer opportunities for required daily physical activity in high school and college compared with elementary and middle school,” the authors wrote. 

“Life transitions during adolescence and young adulthood, such as matriculating into higher education, have also been identified as high-risk periods for decreased physical activity, although living on a college campus with nearby exercise facilities may curtail the rate of physical activity decline in young adults. In addition, adolescents and young adults may report new barriers to activity, such as concerns about appearance and image when exercising.”

Exercise in adults

According to a study published in the International Journal of Liberal Arts and Social Science, males and females have different exercise habits and motivations for exercising.

Given that quality of life is affected by exercise habits and reasons for exercise, investigators set out to explore gender differences among these variables. In the study, 72 males and 108 females were asked to report on their quality of life, exercise habits, and motives—and gender differences were indeed observed.

“Research investigating gender differences in reasons for exercise points to fairly consistent findings,” the authors wrote. “Specifically, male exercisers are more likely to report that they exercise for social and competitive reasons, whereas female exercisers are more likely to report exercising for appearance reasons such as to lose weight or to maintain weight loss.”

“In general, women exercised more than men,” they added. “Women also indicated exercising for weight-related and toning reasons more than men, while men endorsed enjoyment reasons more than women.”

Further, the authors noted, the reasons for exercise predicted quality of life for women over the exercise itself. For men, exercise itself was the best predictor of quality of life. Ultimately, they noted, exercise is not necessarily beneficial for a woman’s quality of life under all conditions. For example, “exercising to lose weight or for fitness was associated with lower quality of life while exercising to improve mood or health was associated with higher quality of life.” The authors noted that, in the aggregate, men may be able to enhance their quality of life by increasing exercise—regardless of the reasons.

In a Taiwanese study published in PLOS ONE, researchers surveyed 2,147 adults regarding exercise habits. In total, 47.8% reported regular exercise, 34.1% reported irregular exercise, and 18.1% reported never exercising. Although no significant gender differences in the frequency of exercise were observed, a significant gender difference was found in the types of exercise most often practiced.

Men reported higher rates of competitive sports, strengthening exercises, and aerobic exercises, whereas women were more likely to walk and participate in recreational activities. Another intriguing finding from the study was that both sexes “enjoyed” exercise.

The authors wrote, “These findings give health promoters a clear picture of the type of men and women more likely to be physically active and more willing to perform exercise regularly. This can be used for future interventions and policies.”

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