Which Sex Makes for Better Athletes, Men or Women? Science Has the Answer

The results of this study could change how we approach athletic training.

Though we’ve made great progress toward gender equality, the consistent leak of sexual harassment allegations is showing us we’ve still got a long way to go. The power dynamic is still very much toward the male side of the spectrum. That said, there’s no arguing men are smarter any longer. More women earn degrees in higher education today than men, an upward trend that’s held for decades. In research, educational attainment is generally the metric used for evaluating cognitive ability.


One place where female performance has been questioned is the realm of physical performance. Men are seen as more athletic than women in our society. Is it true? Men lose weight faster that’s for sure, but only in the near-term. In the sexes measure up about the same. That says nothing about overall athletic performance, however.  

Here, the stereotype falls flat. Women who work out can become fitter than their male counterparts, according to a new study by Canadian researchers. The results were published in the in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.

Scientists from the University of Waterloo, led by Thomas Beltrame, looked to see if one gender had an advantage over the other in athletic performance. To find out, they examined how a man’s and a woman’s body responds to aerobic exercise. What Beltrame and colleagues found is a female’s body processes oxygen faster than a male’s. According to Beltrame, "The findings are contrary to the popular assumption that men's bodies are more naturally athletic."

Women’s bodies have a higher oxygen uptake than men, leaning to better athletic performance. Credit: Getty Images.

Previous studies found consistently that men’s bodies outperformed women’s. But those all used older adults or children as subjects. This is the first time young, healthy adults have been studied in terms of oxygen uptake, which is defined as the amount of oxygen the body can absorb and use in a minute’s time. It’s the standard metric for evaluating aerobic fitness.

“We hypothesized that young men would have faster aerobic system dynamics in response to the onset of exercise than women,” study authors wrote. 18 participants volunteered, 9 men and 9 women. The two groups were similar in things like age and weight. Each was healthy and active, and engaged in similar levels of aerobic exercise, regularly.

During the study, volunteers were asked to take part in an incremental treadmill exercise meant to raise their breathing and heart rate. Next, they participated in three moderate-intensity exercises. Researchers wrote in their report, “These results indicated that the peripheral and pulmonary oxygen extraction dynamics were remarkably faster in women.”

Women may actually be more physically resilient due to a greater oxygen uptake. Credit: Getty Images.

Women circulated oxygen in their systems 30% faster than men. A quicker oxygen uptake means less muscle fatigue and better overall performance. Moreover, some studies suggest it could make one more mentally and physically resilient in the face of a tough workout.

Health Sciences Professor Richard Hughson was a co-author on the study. "We found that women's muscles extract oxygen from the blood faster,” he said, “which, scientifically speaking, indicates a superior aerobic system.” As for the implications, besides female bragging rights, Dr. Beltrame said, "It could change the way we approach assessment and athletic training down the road."

Another common misconception about fitness is that it’s only good for the body. The impacts on the brain are significant too. It might even make you more creative. To find out more, click here:

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What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

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  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
  • The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
  • Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.


The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.

Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

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It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.