Gender Differences in Metabolism

Health & Wellness

Tips for Living Healthy in South Arkansas

Jason Rogers
Manager, JRMC Wellness Centers

We often think that men and women are as different as apples and hammers, when actually, we are very similar metabolically. About 90% of daily energy expenditure is due to muscle mass, fat mass, and activity level. Women do tend to have slower metabolisms than men, but the difference is primarily a function of muscle mass and body size, not gender.

We might expect someone with more muscle and less fat to be more metabolically healthy. However, blood sugar numbers tell a different story. In men, fasting blood glucose tends to be higher, and decreases more slowly. Why the difference? Women are better metabolically equipped.

When discussing gender differences, the first place most people look is sex hormones. The majority of differences in muscle mass IS attributable to men’s higher testosterone levels. However, a lot of the difference in metabolic characteristics can be explained by women’s higher estrogen levels. Muscles have estrogen receptors and, when activated, they increase the rate of glucose uptake into the muscle.

There are also differences between genders in where fat is stored and the characteristics of that fat. Men tend to have more visceral fat (around the organs in the abdominal cavity), and women tend to have more subcutaneous fat (between the muscles and the skin). Visceral fat is particularly bad as it increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and all sorts of nastiness. So the fat distribution pattern in women is more beneficial.

The most important muscular difference is that women tend to have a greater proportion of slow twitch muscle fibers. As a result women use more fat DURING exercise than men do. However, after training, that fat utilization reverses. Women tend to burn an increased proportion of carbs, where men burn a higher percentage of fat.

To reiterate: (generally speaking) gender differences in metabolism aren’t that great, and are actually less a function of gender then of body composition. Of the differences that do exist, the largest contributing factors are differences in muscle fiber type and sex hormones. These differences set women up to be more metabolically suited to just about everything. They have better insulin sensitivity, more favorable fat distribution, and burn a greater proportion of fat during exercise. Men do have the edge in explosive, but not maximal, strength.

Women also do not have a harder time losing weight JUST because they’re female. Yes, they’ll probably have to eat fewer calories than a man who weighs the same amount, but the primary factors in determining calorie needs are body size, body composition, and activity level – with gender playing little to no role. So ladies, get active and get ripped and you can show him up!

The JRMC Wellness Centers, located in Pine Bluff and White Hall, offer a variety of fitness options for all ages and interests. Free weights, machines, cardio equipment, personal trainers and a full schedule of Les Mills classes are available at both facilities. For more information call the Pine Bluff (541-7890) or White Hall (850-8000) facility.


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