Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Published medical studies: No girls allowed!

And look like an alien while you're at it!
It's safe to say that there is a lot of conflicting, misleading, and just plain wrong information regarding fitness, nutrition, and general health available to us. Just type "how to lose weight" into your internet browser and you will be overwhelmed by products, programs, machines, and diets which all claim to be the key to a healthy new you (cue skinny models in spandex and muscled men with testosterone dripping from their eyeballs). Weeding through all of this garbage is tiring and confusing (should I eat carbs never or all the time?!). My general rule of thumb has been to try to find an academic study on the specific health question I have, which the New York Times "Health" section online is often a good starting point for.

The problem I have been running into lately, however, is that a lot of these studies are sexist. No, researchers aren't telling female subjects how cute they look when they sweat -- they just don't have any female subjects. Basically, newer health studies are testing old theories and findings on women and discovering that male and female bodies are different (you mean, besides the boobs thing??). A large proportion of studies conducted regarding physical fitness and nutrition base their findings solely on male participants. For example:

Remember gym/health class in school when we all learned how to calculate our maximum heart rate? The formula (220 - age of person) is supposed to give you a goal to shoot for in the intensity of your exercise. It turns out that the formula we have always learned, which is also programmed into just about every treadmill and elliptical machine ever, was calculated based on data from men -- only men. A recent study of 5,500 women found that this formula was not helpful because it produces a maximum heart rate that is too high for the average woman to sustain without quickly exhausting herself.

Well, hello yourself...no, wait, stop targeting me!
Another commonly used fitness finding is the recommendation to eat foods high in protein after an intense workout in order to increase muscle performance. Once again, someone finally had the brilliant idea of testing this finding on women and, lo and behold, different results were obtained. The women in this study showed no benefits from post-workout protein consumption, and some even complained of increased fatigue and soreness.

Shockingly, the lack of consideration of women's physical differences from men is not just a fitness issue, it can be a life or death issue. Let's go back to our school health classes once more: remember learning the symptoms of a heart attack? Pain in the left arm, feeling like an elephant is sitting on your chest? Well, as you may have guessed by now based on the theme of this post, those symptoms often don't apply to women. As a result, female heart attack patients are more likely than their male counterparts to die in the hospital:
Doctors or emergency responders may not take women's symptoms seriously, says Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and an American Heart Association spokeswoman.
"Women are coming in saying they're nauseous, they're fatigued, they're sweating, and doctors say, 'You're fine,' " she says. "Doctors will say it's anxiety and it's all in your head."
Yet women also may not take their heart symptoms seriously enough, she says.
"We have a tendency to downplay what we're feeling," Steinbaum says. "If you say to your doctors, 'It's probably in my head,' then the person who is listening starts dismissing it. If you think you're having a heart attack, say it. And if you're wrong, then you're wrong."
Like I said, it's hard enough finding accurate health information without wondering whether the findings of academic studies have been tested on the "other" half of the population. Women's health and lives are being compromised because of it. Why this problem exists is likely a combination of many factors: there are more male athletes than female ones, so it's easier to recruit them for studies; researchers assume that the differences between male and female physiology do not extend significantly beyond the sex-related parts; researchers subconsciously associate physical fitness with male bodies; women are hard to recruit for studies about the body because they are self-conscious and afraid of looking weak or fat; and the list could go on forever.

To conclude, from now on I'm going to blame the patriarchy for any and all fitness/nutrition/health woes I have (yes, my tummy flab is the result of sexism, now leave me alone to sit on my couch and watch The New Girl for the next 5 hours).

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