I'm one of those women who likes reading men's health and fitness magazines. Though they all promise bodies and sex lives that most of us will never have, I'm drawn to the funny, self-deprecating tone, the functional workout tips and the emphasis on sweat, competition and strength training.
Yes, women's magazines have these elements but on a vastly diminished scale. They're fluffier, in part because beauty products and clothes are considered health-related, but also because women are still plagued by the irrational fear of "bulking up." We won't get huge without added testosterone, but some magazines still perpetuate the notion that men should build insanely huge muscles and women need to lose fat.
A recent Muscle & Fitness magazine cover, for example, promised "75 of the Best Muscle Building Exercises." By contrast, Muscle & Fitness Hers, the female counterpart to the bodybuilder mag, featured thinspiration, including "The Skinny on Fat Loss" and "The Best Natural Appetite Suppressants." The majority of advertisements touted fat-burning supplements, stimulants and weight loss products.
Men's Health and Women's Health magazines have plenty of overlapping content. Both recognize that both genders compete in marathons and triathlons, want great abs in 15 minutes and need nutritional guidance. But the editors use considerably different voices to reach their male and female readers.
"For Women's Health, it's a confiding, challenging, sisterly thing — equal parts encouragement, sympathy and advice. It comes from a place of 'just us girls,'" said David Zinczenko, editor-in-chief of Men's Health and editorial director of Women's Health.
"Guys tend to be a bit more bracing with their counsel, with a healthy dose of humor — plus self-denigration — thrown into the mix," Zinczenko added. "First we laugh at ourselves, then we laugh at you, then we deliver the goods straight up, with an expert chaser."
Women's Health also uses a larger typeface than Men's Health. Though it may be simply a design decision, larger fonts can elicit stronger emotional brain responses, according to a study by German researchers.
The direct "male" approach is what I find appealing. Men's workouts are usually cast as a way to build a stronger body. Women's exercises are given cute, superficial names, such as "The Wedding Dress Workout" or "The Bikini Body Booty routine." Rather than sending the message that exercise builds muscle, confidence and improves mental health, the emphasis is on looking good. If your workout goal is to fit into a swimsuit, you're using an unsustainable approach to fitness. But if your goal is to get healthy — which means incorporating it as a lifestyle — you'll have a body that you want to show off.
Still, some women — and magazines — are catching on. At Details, where 32 percent of the online readership is female, there's a growing recognition that "the gender boundaries in fitness studios and gyms have been blurred," said Details senior editor Sheila Monaghan, who edits the health, fitness and nutrition section. "Fitness has become this sort of equalizer between the sexes," she said. "Everyone wants the same results."
Taking cues from the opposite sex
What women can learn from reading men's magazines:
1. Worry more about building muscle than burning fat. Women "focus on working out with low weights and high repetitions, using weights that are significantly lighter than objects they lift all day long, such as children," fitness trainer Tom Holland wrote in his book "Beat the Gym." This increases the muscles' endurance without making any meaningful changes. "It's a waste of time," he said.
2. Play games. Men often think of themselves as athletes; they play pickup basketball, hit the driving range or join a soccer game to keep workouts fresh and fun. Chose an activity over the elliptical machine or treadmill.
3. Learn from real athletes. Women's magazines often feature workouts from actresses who have to look good for the camera. Men's magazines are full of training secrets from athletes who have to perform.
What men can learn from women's fitness magazines:
1. Join a class. Men were the ones who invented Zumba and Pilates; yoga and barre can also strengthen muscles men didn't know they had, increase flexibility, help prevent injury and shift the focus from boring gym routines.
2. Lighten up. While women could use heavier weights, men can benefit from lighter ones or even body weight exercises. "With men, the major problem is ego; they want to impress the other guys in the gym," said Holland. "It leads to bad form, decreased results and inevitable injury."
3. Balance: Men typically train their mirror muscles — the chest and biceps. Incorporating a workout from a woman's magazine could help target other muscle groups and result in a more balanced physique.