Dear exercise scientists: Where are the women?

Alex Hutchinson, writing in the Globe and Mail, asks “Why are female test subjects still being excluded from exercise research?” Lots of friends shared that story on social media, expressing WTF? levels of surprise. To those of us writing here on this blog, it wasn’t news.

Pretty much whenever I share stories about the results of some new fitness research, either I point out on our Facebook page that YMMV since the results came from research which tested university age men or I neglect to point it out and a helpful reader chimes in asking where are the women.

Here are some issues where we’ve pointed out the absence of research on women. There’s Catherine on women and concussions, me on intermittent fasting, Catherine again on women’s hearts. (Catherine is our go-to person for helping readers understand studies. As a public health ethics researcher that’s her bread and butter, as they say.)

Gretchen Reynolds wrote about this 2010, What exercise science doesn’t know about women.

In that story she talks about research that interested me. The original study showed significant recovery benefit from consuming protein after a hard workout. However, the subjects were all men. When the same study used women as subjects, they got a different result. The women experienced no big benefits from consuming protein after tough workouts.

Pick your favourite chunk of research based exercise wisdom. Mine is the research on the effectiveness of sprint interval training on fitness. See here.

“The McMaster team has previously shown that the SIT protocol, which involved three 20-second ‘all-out’ cycle sprints, was effective for boosting fitness. The workout totaled just 10 minutes, including a 2-minute warm-up and 3-minute cool down, and two minutes of easy cycling for recovery between the hard sprints.

The new study compared the SIT protocol with a group who performed 45 minutes of continuous cycling at a moderate pace, plus the same warm-up and cool down. After 12 weeks of training, the results were remarkably similar, even though the MICT protocol involved five times as much exercise and a five-fold greater time commitment.”

Great news, right? Who doesn’t have ten minutes to workout? Except that the subjects were all men.

My worry here isn’t that there are huge differences between men and women. My worry is that basing exercise research solely on one group–university aged cis-men–is not likely to yield results that are generalizeable across persons.

There’s even a nice example in Hutchinson’s story from my new academic home the University of Guelph and the beet research of Kate Wickham.

“When Wickham set out to explore the performance-boosting effects of nitrate-rich beet juice during her master’s degree at the University of Guelph, she found more than 100 studies on the topic that features all-male subject populations. In comparison, there were just seven all-female studies.

Based on the extremely limited data available, it seems that women may actually get a bigger endurance boost from beet juice than men. But it’s not clear whether that reflects some subtle difference in physiology or whether it’s simply a result of women typically being smaller than men (and thus getting a higher nitrate dose from a bottle of beet juice), or the fact that women tend to eat more nitrate-rich foods such as spinach and arugula.”

Three red beets against a pink background. Photo by FOODISM360 on Unsplash.

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