Women and Exercise: Figuring out what works

My current challenge is building a conceptual systems framework around health outcomes for women and offspring. Doing so requires a careful reading of historical threads as well as current individual findings. I thought I would share some of the what I am working on in this area.

  • Thread: Learning in the physical activity environment.

This work forms one of the underpinnings for much of the current research on girls (and boys) in the school PA environment. Most significant may be Arnold’s delineation that during exercise activities, learning is taking place on 3 levels: 1. How to do something (e.g., hit a ball or jump from one foot to two feet). 2. Observations about nature and motion (e.g., effects of gravity, the wind, distance or force vectors). 3. Social or interactive learning (e.g., “I like moving with these people” or “this group works well together”). [see pp. 10-15 Cowlin, Women’s Fitness Program Development.]

When I am training teachers, I make sure they have a clear grasp on what skill(s) they are teaching, what interesting natural phenomena are possibly connected, and how they will discover what the participants learn from each other as well as from the activity.

  • Thread: How young girls differ from boys in game settings and how this plays out over time.

An interesting finding of Gilligan’s research into the ‘tween age (10-12) was that – while boys’ primary concern in game settings is the strict application of rules, even if argument over what the rules mean stopped the game – for girls the main concern was maintaining the social fabric, which sometimes meant bending the rules to keep everyone happy. A recent example of how this plays out was the report in the news a couple year ago of a woman college senior softball player who, in her last game, hit her first home run. Rounding first base, she slipped on the base, fell and tore her ACL. The women on the opposing team picked her up and carried her around the remaining bases saying it was the right thing to do, even if it was the game-winning run.

From reading this text, I realized that an important aspect of program development is not how to make girls have the same values or results as boys. Some girls and women want to be in a highly competitive, rule-driven environment, but these are a minority. And thus, the relevant research questions we ask are not about what will make girls have the same outcomes as boys, but rather, what outcomes are desirable for girls and women, and how do we construct environments that allow this.

I wonder how often we ask questions that seek to get the same results for women as men. Here is an example: Women have more ACL injuries than men in some sports. In general, strengthening the quads is the most common method recommended to solve this problem. Works great for men. Unfortunately it ignores the main issues for women:  the rotation component of hip flexion/extension is greater in women than men, and the track of the patella tendon is more narrow in women than men. The discipline that finds both less injury and equal rates of ACL injury between the sexes is dance. Once seen as a “feminine” activity, there is increasing participation in this form of activity by all sexes. Dance relies on effective rotator control at the iliofemoral joint, and not so much on quad strength, for guiding motion at the knee.

Ballet class fall 2011

If we offer students a choice between a ballet class and a football class, most girls and a few boys will pick ballet. Most boys and some girls will pick football. What does this teach us? Most girls like the skills and group activity that is found in a dance class, and most boys prefer those things in a football game. But, there are variations in our physiology, and where we fall along the spectrum affects our preferences for activity. Other traits also affect our preferences.

A note on the influence of mobile devices:

One fairly recent development affecting programing is the proliferation of screen/social media. Interestingly – although it has produced transparency – it has not altered the activity issues surrounding the diverse spectrum of sexual identity, associated behaviors and resulting outcomes. We still have food issues; girls still think having a six pack will make them sexy (while it is just as likely to create low back pain if the transverse abdominals are weak), being with other girls/women is still one of the main reasons women come to exercise programs. Screen media does provide opportunities for understanding recent perceptual shortcomings, such as lack of depth perception, that can result from constant use of these media. Importantly, it also lets us see advantages that are gained from their use. Reducing teen pregnancy has happened – in part – because of viral messaging about using birth control.