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Fit For You: Men, Women & Group Exercise


Have you ever gone to a group exercise class? Your answer may well depend on whether you’re a man or a woman.  It turns out the majority of people in group exercise classes - including the instructors - are female.

Why that is, is the source of some debate. Sports and clinical psychologist Dr. Peder Piering says our attitude towards exercise class is often shaped by what we observed as children. He recalls his father in the garage lifting weights and his mother working out to exercise videos at home; a memory many people can relate to.

"The things that you grow up with, you tend to return to as you grow older. It's those things that you're comfortable with, so I think that has something to do with (the group dynamic)," Piering says.

Although many people have exchanged Jane Fonda aerobic videos for the many streaming fitness programs available online, he says the key difference in people's approach to exercise mainly boils down to vanity. Male or female, we are drawn to activities that accent our strengths.

"For men, it's about building bulk...engaging our egos through competition and sport," Piering explains. "Women's approach to exercise is often more holistic. They're more willing to try new things, they're going to incorporate diet, spirituality as well."

He also notes that the way people think of exercise in relation to their lives attributes to the activities they engage in. Men are typically thinking in the short term, Piering says. "They want to go out, they want to have fun, they want to accomplish something. Women are more long term. They're considering mind, body, spirit - it's more about health, where men just want to get a workout in."

Societal roles are also a large factor when it comes to encouraging or discouraging people from engaging in exercise habits that are often thought of being typically male or female. For example, a man may be intimidated to step into a group exercise class filled with women and a woman may be reluctant to step out onto the weight floor.

"Those roles were much more separate, much more distinct several years ago," says Piering. "But now, I think the opposite sexes are learning from each other, and I think we're both benefiting."

Part of this shift, he attributes to the Title IX legislation passed in 1972, which enforces equal opportunity for men and women in sports with respect to education.  "I think that's really started to take hold over the last ten years where women are allowed to and encouraged to do the same amazing things men can do. That also is reflected in our workout routines," Piering says.

Men and women can learn more from each other now more than ever. As the lines continue to blur between the sexes and their exercise habits, the availability of different types of exercise can also help to encourage expanding the fitness horizon. From pilates to CrossFit, "there are so many different way to exercise now," he says. "The creativity is there, it piques your interest and maintains that motivation."

Although he admits he has yet to go beyond his comfort zone and participate in more group exercise activities, Piering is confident that the dynamic will continue to change for the better. "I think we're going to find that happy medium between doing your own thing individually and joining a group exercise, joining a team. Once you find that balance for yourself, that's when you're going to get the greatest benefit."

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.