Obscura |||

The Gender Data Gap in Exercise and Fitness Research

How inaccurate representations of women in exercise and fitness research is impacting our health

I thought this was pretty fitting to post today seeing as it’s International Women’s Day which is all about helping to forge a gender equal world.

As IWD state, celebrating women’s achievements and increasing visibility, while calling out inequality, is key.”

It wasn’t until I hit my 30’s that I learned that the majority of research in fitness is done on men and then just applied to women.1

In fact, researchers found that when looking at the articles published in three major Sports and Exercise Medicine journals over a three-year period, 39% of participants were female and 61% were male.2

Granted that study was in 2014 so you would think things would be changing by now. And they are. Well, sort of. A paper published in 2020 stated,3

Encouragingly, two-thirds of studies involving human participants are mixed-sex studies, and whereas there remains a broad imbalance within many studies, suggesting the need for further change, when all human studies in all fields are combined the average ratio is 57%:43% (male:female).”

So 57% to 43% doesn’t seem too bad right? Getting better at least. That’s unless you’re interested in exercise, cardiovascular or muscle physiology where mixed-sex studies are male dominant (with exceptions). 4

And let’s not forget that in actual fact, it’s not beneficial to pool together male and female data as this may hide meaningful physiological differences. After all, we know that sex differences exist, so why then is it a good idea to mix the data? As Caroline Criado Perez states in her book Invisible Women,5

We continue to rely on data from studies done on men as if they apply to women. Specifically, Caucasian men aged twenty-five to thirty, who weigh 70 kg. This is Reference Man’ and his superpower is being able to represent humanity as a whole. Of course, he does not.

Hence we need more single-sex studies. Because if we don’t do this we are risking a skewed understanding of what normal’ physiology is within not only a healthy population but also between males and females.

Unfortunately, as O’Halloran (2020) points out There remains a considerable portion of single-sex studies, with a male bias”. And this is especially the case, once again, within studies of exercise, muscle and cardiovascular physiology where female only single sex studies account for just 8% of published research.

I also need to mention that the majority of these studies focus on pregnancy, menopause and reproductive disease so they’re not even just for the general female population.

Now I completely agree that we do need these studies of pregnancy, of menopause, of studies that are representative of the many stages of the female lifecycle, and yet, we are still missing so much more.

When women are not pregnant, when they are not menopausal, when they do not have reproductive disease, what are they? Where is the research that represents us within health and fitness during the vast majority of our life? We need this research. Because the fact remains, data from studies done on men do not apply to women.

What do women want

So many of the posts I have published over the years have looked at the Invisible Woman, how much of the research uses reference man’ and that research has just been passed over as being the same for women as it is for men. And how women are often excluded from studies because they are too complicated’. 6

But one thing I really want to point out is that, although there is so much frustration, upset and anger at how women are being underrepresented and misdiagnosed, this is not aimed at men.

Because the fact is, this gender data gap is not generally malicious. And it is not even deliberate. As Caroline Perez put it…it’s quite the opposite.

It is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is therefore a kind of not thinking.”

Which is why I am grateful for those around me, especially the men, who want to learn about women’s health, how women suffer differently and what they can do to help. Because the answer to the age-old question of what do women want?’ is…

To be listened to. To be heard. For their pain and suffering to be acknowledged. That’s it.

Because the fact of the matter is, when half of the world’s population is female, women’s health cannot possibly be niche.

  1. O’Halloran, K.D., 2020. Mind the gap: widening the demographic to establish new norms in human physiology. The Journal of Physiology 598, 3045–3047. LINK↩︎

  2. Costello, J.T., Bieuzen, F., Bleakley, C.M., 2014. Where are all the female participants in Sports and Exercise Medicine research? European Journal of Sport Science 14, 847–851. LINK↩︎

  3. O’Halloran, K.D., 2020. Mind the gap: widening the demographic to establish new norms in human physiology. The Journal of Physiology 598, 3045–3047. LINK↩︎

  4. Women are studied more in mixed sex studies when it comes to motor control and movement, proprioception, and CNS plasticity.(O’Halloran, 2020) ↩︎

  5. Caroline Criado Perez, 2019. Invisible Women. Random House.↩︎

  6. The majority of these posts were over on facebook and which I am slowly updating and adding to this site.↩︎

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