Addressing the Gender Gap in Sports Science

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Whether your favorite sport is swimming, track and field, fencing, field hockey or another of the 33 sports with competitions in Tokyo this summer, watching elite athletes perform is often an awe-inspiring event. You may ask yourself “how do they do that?” as you watch the incredible feats. However, more and more scientists are also asking targeted questions as they watch female athletes. Traditionally, sports science has not focused enough on female athletes and the biological differences between women and men. A recent article in The Physiologist Magazine examined this gender gap.

Even though roughly half of the athletes competing in Japan this month are female and millions of girls and women around the world participate in sports from recreational to elite levels, it’s mostly male volunteers who are enrolled in research trials to study health, disease and athletic performance.

Biological sex matters in research because sex hormones can influence how men and women respond to different health conditions, such as heart disease. The differences between males and females extend to sports as well. Women, for example, have a higher likelihood of getting a concussion during a soccer game or may experience performance changes due to premenstrual syndrome symptoms on any given day. Without knowing why these things happen, it’s difficult to develop preventive tools, training protocols or treatments.

Involving women in more scientific studies will help close this gender gap. Researchers are learning more every day about sex as a biological variable in sports science as a way to keep both male and female athletes safe and healthy as they train. Some of those researchers will collaborate this fall at the American Physiological Society’s New Trends in Sex and Gender Medicine virtual meeting, where topics of discussion will include sex differences in areas such as:

  • hypertension,
  • microbiome,
  • brain function,
  • transgender medicine,
  • developmental programming,
  • pain and addiction, and
  • aging.

The next time you’re cheering on your favorite female athlete, imagine what her performance might look like when more training techniques can be tailored to her—and not her male counterpart’s—biology.

Erica Roth

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