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April 16, 2004

Women, Men, Exercise Classes

Dear Friedrich --

Have you ever seen a plausible explanation for why so many women prefer to do their exercising in an exercise-class setting, while most men seem to prefer exercising on their own? When I visit the gym, I'm often struck by the way the crowds in most exercise classes are 3/4 or more female. I wonder what the evo-bio crowd has to say about this.

Ladies, gents: explanations? Speculations?



posted by Michael at April 16, 2004


Women are herd critters.

Men are loners.

Pretty simple.

Posted by: Stephen on April 16, 2004 12:49 PM

Men always become competitive with one another in anything, so when they know they aren't in shape they won't look for company.

Company is challenge here.

Women just like to know someone else around them hates that particular exercise as much as they do.

Company is soothing there.

Posted by: ijsbrand on April 16, 2004 1:23 PM

Tell that to guys who make a weekly ritual of "Monday Night Football" or the Superbowl.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 16, 2004 1:26 PM

Hmmm, if you think women are not competitive, you're in for a nasty surprise...

It's not fun comparing yourself to others in class who's in better shape/didn't have any kids yet/younger/don't give a damn; that's a minus.
A big (decisive for me)plus: somebody is doing planning part for you. Speed, amount of repetition, variety, sequence, breathing, right posture (you can correct yours seeing instructor in the mirror) - you delegate all this decisions.
Being as tired as I am after 10 intense hrs on average workday + 1.25 hours commute (or lazy on a weekend morning) - I'll rather take the "out" part and leave the "work" part to somebody else.

But it's me. My friend never takes classes and makes fun of me as "I only followed orders!" type.
I tell her she's a control freak...

Posted by: Tatyana on April 16, 2004 3:49 PM

I don't think it's true that women are herd critters and men are loners. There are more loners among men than among women, by far; but men are also more prone to herd behavior. Women enjoy small (2-5) groups, but you don't see them configured in large groups very often -- for example, women are not nearly as interested as men in team sports (either for playing or for watching). In my experience, women in a largish group tend to pick at each other until the group breaks down into smaller sub-groups. Men either leave or merge with the herd.

Posted by: houyhnnm on April 16, 2004 5:52 PM

Do you take a male buddy with you to go work out?
Betcha don't. How come?

(1) I think men are more task-oriented, and therefore go to "work out, take a shower, get out" while at least some women are specifically there for the social element, and to wear cute workout clothes, etc.

(2) I think guys like more defined competition when they hang out together. It's not competitive to simply attend a class together. (And that applies, actually, to all classes. Women might take a poetry class with a friend, while men would typically not invite a male friend to go to a poetry class together). While, of course, playing raquetball or something, where there is a defined winner and loser, is competitive and therefore acceptably macho. Women are competitive, too, but in a more undefined way. Nobody officially "wins" the cute workout clothes contest, so six different women can leave the class thinking they had the best outfit.

Posted by: annette on April 16, 2004 7:36 PM

It would be my luck I'd finally put my book down and get off my fanny to take one of these classes and I'd be the only middle aged, gray haired, creaky knee'd, slighty dumpy, saggy-baggy mother of two teenagers in the midst of a group of young, svelte, lithe, limber, drop down dead gorgeous babes who are half my age.

Why would I want to do that to myself?

Posted by: Deb on April 16, 2004 9:37 PM

Deb, when you'll come here, I'll take you to my "jazzerobics" class, so it'll be two of "Middle-aged....etc" of us.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 17, 2004 8:16 AM

Tatyana, cool! We can exercise together and think nasty thoughts about what childbirth and gravity are going to do to the babes as they age!

That will be after I pay for the fence, the barn and the saddle and feed that our newly aquired horse needs....and after I take the riding lessons I pinky swore with my daughter to take so I, too, could experience the awe and joy of riding a middle aged, saggy baggy, creeky knee'd, slightly dumpy Appaloosa mare named Annie. ;o)

Posted by: Deb on April 17, 2004 9:50 AM

When I first pondered this, I thought it might have to do somehow with an indoor/outdoor setting. When I drive around town on a Saturday morning, it certainly seems to me that outdoor adult group sports activities (softball leagues, basketball leagues, golf) seem to have a clear majority of men involved, while indoor gym classes are, as you rightly observe, mostly women.

On second thought though, I think it has more to do with men's unwillingness to enter a hierarchical situation in which they are, by definition, not top dog. Enrolling in a class puts the instructor in a dominant position (more knowledgeable, probably more buff). Most men may prefer to "learn" athletics in a peer group situation where dominance roles have the perceived advantage of being more fluid, i.e., acquired skills CAN put you in a situation eventually of being the alpha.

The only situation I can think of where this is not the case is in golf. It seems to me that men are willing to go to a golf pro to improve their skills. This is not true in tennis for some reason; a visit to a tennis club will show that most students are women. I'm not sure why golf is different, but for some reason it seems to be.

Posted by: SusanG on April 17, 2004 10:02 AM

Interesting speculations, tks. It's funny, no? There are places where guys like to congregate -- bars, in front of TVs, softball games, etc. But not in exercise classes.

I wonder if, in addition to what y'all have raised, there might be a couple of other elements at play too. May women do seem to have a love of mutual self-validation (love that word) -- of cheering each other on. And given that many of them exercise not because they get some lowdown pleasure out of grunting and sweating (something a fair number of guys love) but instead to look good and feel good, maybe they find that cheering each other on (as at Weight Watchers, maybe) is a help. It ain't easy, this exercise thing. It's as tough as dieting. So maybe it helps to be among other gals who are committed to it too. Maybe the general vibe helps.

Also, there is that funny thing many women have about consensus. Maybe an exercise class represents some kind of group consensus to do this thing called exercise? I do notice at work and elsewhere that the consensus-building thing that so many women love ("let's all get on board here!") drives many men crazy. Maybe men sense a "consensus"-like vibe in the air at exercise classes and flee.

One final hunch? It's classes generally. Women often seem to like classes generally more than men. They're happier in school. They like to work on themselves. (Many do, anyway.) You can't stop them from self-improving. In most of the school classes I ever took, the girls were more content than the boys were -- boys often couldn't wait to get out of class. And in most of the adult-ed type classes I've taken, women outnumbered men by quite a lot. So maybe part of it's that women like classes and men don't like classes. Reminds them of school too much.

Maybe? Maybe not? In any case, an interesting phenom, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 17, 2004 11:06 AM

Maybe it is more a jock/non-jock split.

Perhaps former athletes only take classes to learn some unique physical skill like a certain kind of dance step or yoga or martial arts, but see little point in learning what they already believe they know: how to exercise and get in shape.

Perhaps men don't generally join classes because they've been on teams, have competed athletically, and have experienced, at one point, being in really good shape. For them, what's the point of exercise class? To learn how to get in shape? To actually get in shape? They've already been in shape and know how to get back in shape.

Now you could ask: But wouldn't such men want to get back in shape, and don't they understand that it is easier to get back in shape in a group setting, as part of a team?

Fair question, but the answer relates to some of the above posts, which is that men would question what the point of the group is, and, frankly, "so that we can all get back in shape" is a rather vaque and un-masculine goal.

In the end, being in an exercise class is just not the same as being on a team. When do we play? How long does the season run? How do we keep score? Where's the value added? Can't I just work-out on my own and spare myself the embarrassment?

Do former female NCAA Div. I athletes take aerobics classes? And I mean take, not teach.

Posted by: Chris on April 17, 2004 1:57 PM

the answer relates to some of the above posts, which is that men would question what the point of the group is

I think that's right. Exercise classes are like dance classes. I tried both and in both cases quickly dropped out. For my taste there was too much emphasis on mutual coordination of activity. That takes work. I got the sense that most women have been practicing such coordinated activity all of their lives and that it's second-nature for them. I felt awkward. I'd rather spend my effort performing an activity than staying in sync with the group. I want to exercise, not perform. My sense was that most of the people in these classes, disproportionately women, enjoyed the performing at least as much as the physical workout. I therefore suspect that spinning classes, which require less mutual coordination, and allow more competition, are attended by a greater percentage of men than is the case for conventional exercise classes like aerobics.

Posted by: Jonathan on April 18, 2004 3:16 PM

There, I like Annette's consideration, it suddenly made it clear to me the difference between zero-sum players: a match where who's the winner and who's the loose is clear. And non-zero-sum players: wix women can walk out of the class convinced to have the best outfit. I personally believe there are side effects to both attitudes, still I like the latter best.

nice to find thinking people around,
take care

Posted by: Obibells on April 19, 2004 8:14 AM

It is possible that the reason women take the classes together is because they are competetive and working with other people around them makes them strive to be better. Not saying that guys don't do that as well... Basketball games, Random football game gatherings...

Posted by: Daisy on April 19, 2004 10:19 PM

The classes focus on qualities women seek most: being lean, slender, and flexible. If you want to get bigger, stronger, and faster, you'd be better off in the weight room or on the track. I think you'll find that cycling and running groups have large numbers of men as well.

Posted by: Jay on April 27, 2004 1:38 PM

The first thing that comes to mind when i read the proposed question was that most women (at least that i have ever known) have an almost obsessive attiitude when it comes to excercizing. In response to this most of the programs offered in the community seem to be trend based. i.e. yoga, pilates, kick boxing.
There is a lot more cardio and toning available which appeals to women, as weight training or other more muscular approachs that most men seem to prefer. (plesae pardon, just generalizing by experience).
So when given a choice most men will choose programs that aren't avilable in bulk and which are just as convenient, if not more so, when done alone, whether this be in a gym setting or at home.

Posted by: T.April on April 29, 2004 4:00 PM

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