Understanding Gendered Approaches to Healthy Eating and Exercise

By: Sarah Marion

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Understanding Gendered Approaches to Healthy Eating and Exercise

How Different Are Men and Women Really?

Our Q3 2021 State of Our Health report explores differences and similarities in the ways men and women approach health, wellness, food, and fitness. We wanted to know what stereotypes had kernels of truth and what myths needed busting, and we certainly found some of both.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, but men and women are actually much more similar than they are different. Similar numbers are engaged with fitness and/or nutrition, they share most life priorities, and their attitudes about healthy eating and exercise track together.

However, small differences do exist at all these levels, and we found that these small differences repeat and amplify into bigger patterns across the data. Here are a few examples.

Gender Differences in Nutrition and Fitness Engagement

In general, more men are engaged with fitness than women, and more women are engaged with nutrition than men. (See bottom footnote for our definition of fitness and nutrition engagement.) These differences are small, but statistically significant (at the 95% confidence level). To get even more detailed, men are more likely to be engaged only with fitness, while women are more likely to be engaged only with nutrition. However, men are also more likely to be engaged with fitness and nutrition.

What this means is that men are probably more likely to come to nutrition engagement via fitness, and we hear this qualitatively; men often talk about nutrition in terms of supporting fitness goals, rather than an end in itself.

But women don’t necessarily take the opposite tack. Even though they’re more involved in nutrition, they don’t see it as supporting fitness goals. Fitness may be layered on top of nutrition for many women, but their nutrition goals are typically more wide-ranging than men’s, and less likely to focus on physical health specifically. This is speaking very generally, of course - we are talking about broad patterns, which always become more complicated the closer you look!

Nutrition and Fitness Engagement by Gender

Differences in Childhood Memories of Health at Home

These differences in engagement likely start in childhood. When we ask consumers to recall what wellness, healthy eating, and physical activity were like in their childhood homes, men consistently have more positive memories than women do. They are significantly more likely to say their family modeled healthy eating and physical activity, that they had a lot of say in what they ate but also that there were rules around eating, and they are especially more likely to say they were encouraged to participate in sports from an early age. Women, meanwhile, are only more likely to say that they struggled with their weight growing up.

Childhood Home Nutrition & Fitness Activities

These slight differences in engagement and early life turn into larger differences in personal priorities and self-assessments. Men are more likely to prioritize fitness, while women are more likely to prioritize weight, diet, appearance, and mental health.

Personal Priorities

But perhaps more importantly, throughout the data men are more confident than women about the extent of their knowledge and their performance in almost every area. Women are more likely to report more barriers to general health, nutrition, and fitness than men, and they’re more likely to say that healthy eating is a struggle and - conversely - less likely to believe they are in control of their health.

Performance on Personal Priorities

Small Differences in Attitudes Become Larger Differences in Behaviors

In our report, we document how these patterns influence men’s and women’s different approaches, attitudes, and barriers related to nutrition and fitness specifically. Small differences in engagement and attitudes result in larger differences in actual behaviors, which become part of our larger cultural understandings of how men and women relate to fitness and nutrition.

Men really are more likely to take an instrumental view of fitness and nutrition, equating physical fitness with strength and athleticism and using nutrition to support specific goals related to physical health and fitness. Women really are much more concerned about weight in both fitness and nutrition. This focus often begins in childhood and seems to shape their approach to health, and healthy eating in particular, as one of struggle and difficulty.

Is Change Coming?

We admit that some of these findings are perhaps depressingly familiar. But there are cracks in this edifice. There are interesting differences between genders across age groups, which highlight opportunities for the future.

Health Engagement by Generation

Nutrition engagement tends to increase among older consumers. However, among younger Americans, Gen Z and Millennials, nutrition engagement is the same among both men and women, a major difference from older generations, where men are as much as 10 percentage points less likely to be engaged with nutrition as women. Shifting gender roles related to food, cooking, and eating likely account for some of this change. This means that health-focused food and beverage brands that cater to older consumers should likely still focus on women as the nutritional head of the household, but all bets are off for younger consumers.

In contrast to nutrition, fitness engagement decreases among older consumers, but the gap between men and women is largest among Millennials and Gen X and closes with Boomers. So, older men and older women share the same levels of fitness engagement. These older men likely have few role models to follow, since they are likely less interested in the high intensity and team sport activities that define men’s approaches to fitness as a whole. Fitness for older men may be an untapped opportunity, lost in the scrum of campaigns focused on younger consumers.

For more details, check out our full report, Health, Wellness & Gender: Exploring Gender Differences in Food and Fitness, available for purchase now!

This report is part of Murphy Research’s State of Our Health syndicated research program. SOOH is the standard reference point for uncovering the underlying truths and trends that propel health attitudes and behaviors. It is the largest and most comprehensive U.S. fitness, food and mindfulness tracker, offering an unparalleled depth and breadth of data informing exceptionally clear insights into almost every facet of American health- and wellness. Due to SOOH’s comprehensive and longitudinal design, it can answer almost any question about fitness, food, health or wellness, and can do so more accurately than can be achieved by looking at these topics in isolation or during a snapshot in time. Learn more about SOOH, including the benefits of subscribing, by emailing info@murphyresearch.com.

Note:

Fitness-engaged is defined as those who report doing any of the following on at least a weekly basis: exercising, wearing a fitness tracker, or tracking their physical activity via app.

Nutrition-engaged is defined as those who report doing any of the following on at least a weekly basis: logging food intake, tracking diet with an app, taking vitamins/minerals/supplements, talking to friends/family/doctors about diet, following a specific diet, or reading healthy food/lifestyle content.