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The cardiologist had been practicing for decades, and she was both knowledgeable and clear in her explanations. She said that many people have heart valves that don’t always work quite right, but never notice it. Then the cardiologist said that the valve issues suddenly manifest for most men in their 40s, but not until their 70s for most women. Immediately I asked, why is that? The cardiologist didn’t have an answer.

Christine Yu asked a similar question in her new book, Up to Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes. Why are women excluded from exercise physiology and sports science research? And what are the implications for girls and women? Women are not small men, as pointed out by Stacy Sims in her popular TedTalk. The lack of quality research on women means there is very little reliable data to help understand female athletes and active women. Repercussions for elite athletes include missing opportunities, injuries, and long-term health. Recreational athletes have barriers to getting into sports and staying in sports. According to Yu, women are more vulnerable to head and musculoskeletal injuries and often lack the appropriate gear for their bodies. Yu points out that scientists did not begin studying women athletes much before the 1980s and 90s. “It’s like they’ve just dumped out all the puzzle pieces and assembled the border, without a photo of the finished puzzle to guide them. Once all the pieces are connected, will it be the same picture as the men’s puzzle or something else entirely?” Making decisions on mixed evidence or two studies done on women is laughable.

Yu explores how gender discrimination corrupted the systems of scientific research and sports. Men have so much more data, studies, and knowledge about their bodies and sport, which, in turn, affects their participation, training, performance, injury rates, and long-term health and mental well-being. Yet Yu also gives hope and shows the ways that researchers and athletes are rejecting the status quo of the male athlete as barometer and proposing new solutions that better serve the needs of female bodies of all ages.

Myths about women’s bodies have long been used against women to hold them back from sports. My personal favorite is when Yu highlights the Spanish physician Cristobal Mendez. He published The Libro del Ejercicio Corporal in 1553 and devoted an entire chapter to women’s exercise. Rural and working class women required exercise that included daily activities – such as plowing, mowing, cleaning, and childcare. Upper class women of leisure were advised to walk around their estates and yell at their servants for exercise.

In the 1928 Summer Olympics, women made their debut in track and field. The 800 meter race was controversial, and officials assumed women could not handle that distance. After crossing the finish line, some of the runners lay down in the grass infield to catch their breath. But the media proclaimed the women “collapsed” and another newspaper claimed they fell onto the grass “unconscious.” Nine women raced, and no one collapsed. But the 800 meter race was eliminated from the Olympic games for women until 1960.

At the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, they played only 80 minutes, instead of the full ninety-minute game. Years later, U.S. captain April Heinrichs remarked, “they were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played ninety.”

There are many reasons for the lack of research on female bodies, but another primary reason, according to Yu, is that scientists favor simplicity and women’s bodies are not simple. The menstrual cycle and hormones influence a wide range of other physiological functions can affect metabolism, muscle function, hydration, temperature regulation, nervous system fatigue, and respiration. And those hormone levels change throughout a woman’s life. The more variations to account for, the more complicated the research. Yu concludes, “the failure to study girls and women and to recognize their lived experiences has greatly impacted their role, participation, and success in sports, and ultimately their health and well-being.” This system sets unrealistic expectations for women’s athleticism and capabilities.

People say they love playing sports and being physically active because it brings them joy. It teaches confidence and self-worth and gives freedom. It also forms meaningful relationships and mentorships and friendships. If we are more inclusive about studying and understanding what it means to be an active person or an athlete, what are the possibilities?

Christine Yu, Up To Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2023).

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • James C Dekker says:

    YAY! Just simply and loudly, YAY and YAY again. Thank you for this blog. I’m the father of three daughters who have never gotten deeply involved in competitive athletics, but they and our two granddaughters and their families are determinedly active and are pleased we encouraged such stuff. They didn’t need competition to do that, but today’s blog is itself encouragement enough not to follow male-dominated studies on women. Thanks again.

  • Nancy Meyer says:

    “Scientists favor simplicity and women’s bodies are not simple. … the failure to study girls and women and to recognize their lived experiences has greatly impacted their role, participation, and success in sports, and ultimately their health and well-being.” Thanks for bringing this issue to a broader audience Rebecca!

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Conclusion to a 2023 Study in Sports Med, “This study shows for the first time that the gap between men and women shrinks when trail running distance increases, which demonstrates that endurance is greater in women. Although women narrow the performance gap with men as race distance increases, top male performers still outperform the top women.” full paper at

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    This is wonderful! I appreciate all the complexity of differences, and I might add the beauty of it.
    I’d add one other thing, while it may be true that we don’t study women’s bodies as much, and we then live in a bit of ignorance because of that complexity, might it be much simpler than this? The more we know about women’s bodies, the more we allow women to play and run and even compete, we reveal women’s strength, perseverance, and more, and then, it’s harder for men to control women’s bodies … and God forbid that men can’t control women’s bodies.

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