File this post under gross gender-based generalizations.
In my experience women are most insecure about what they look like, which leads to a host of issues around not eating enough, feeling shame, and misguided attempts to “lose weight.” Social pressures and cultural discrimination against aging women have something to do with this. Just ask any woman in Hollywood when well-written, three-dimensional roles start drying up. Amy Schumer hilariously skewers this hypocrisy in the definitely NSFW clip below (seriously don’t click if salty language offends you). The basic message in Hollywood is one that I think gets filtered through the rest of our culture, which is, “women, don’t get older.”
Men, on the other hand, tend to feel less secure about what they can do. My theory is that one can split men into two categories: men who go to the gym in their teens and twenties, and men who don’t go to the gym during that timeframe. The men who go to the gym in their teens and twenties spend a lot of time at the bench press and doing various curl movements to achieve big arms. The men who don’t go to the gym as young men perhaps never will, especially if they’re not able to perceive how their unfit status holds them back from enjoying greater quality of life.
I spend a lot of my energy with older male clients trying to get them to understand the benefits of gradually progressing, avoiding injury, and working on movement patterns instead of ego-boosting exercises like bench presses and dumbbell curls. They look over and see the kid in his early twenties pressing a bunch of weight over his head and they immediately think less of themselves if they can’t lift the same weight. I have to work hard to convince them to do things like warm up properly and stretch post workout. They just want to load a bar with as much weight as possible and move it, especially with their upper bodies.
That’s not the most difficult obstacle to overcome for me as a coach. The biggest hurdle consists of the guys who used to work out in their twenties but stop going to the gym because, well, they got older, and they’re not as strong as they used to be. So rather than face the indignity of a long warmup and lighter weights they just stay home and talk about their “bad back” or “bad knees.” Sound familiar? I spend a lot of time thinking through how to convince guys like this to go to the gym and most of the time I feel like Sisyphus pushing an Indiana Jones-sized boulder up a hill.
Women in my experience are more willing to ask for help in the gym because they haven’t internalized the cultural pressure to already know everything about it. Remember, a woman’s only job in our culture is to stay as young-looking and thin as possible. So for the women who seek out personal trainers, yoga instructors, or Pilates coaches they’re more willing to say “help.”
I’ll be forty next month, so I know a little bit about the aging male demographic. And I know more than a little about ego because I’m constantly battling my own in the gym. There’s a voice in my head who sees stronger men as confirmation that I’m less than rather than as an inspiration. It’s not difficult to see how this destructive thought process could turn–even subconsciously–into “I’ll just not work out” with some sort of half-baked justification thrown in to massage the ego.
I’ve had too many conversations with the children of aging parents who report that they just cannot get dads to pay attention to their health and wellness for me to stay silent or ignore gender-based culture differences. If I had one wish for my female readers it would be for them to learn how to love their bodies as they are. For the men? It would probably be to learn how to swallow their pride, ask for help, and learn how to get stronger step-by-step. (Actually, I’d have the same hope for women. The learning to love their bodies thing is almost always the first step toward a willingness to strive for step-by-step strength).
If you’ve been struggling to get your dad or grandfather into the gym, try talking him through the logic.
1.) He doesn’t have to wake up hurting every day just because he’s older.
2.) Strength training isn’t just for young guys. The benefits go well beyond the aesthetic and performance.
3.) He can still build muscle well into his 70s–it’s never too late to start. Even in his 80s, he can still see neurological benefits from strength training that will manifest as improved movement and strength.
As for the aging women? Let’s talk next week…