One primary physiological ability stands out between men and women: women give birth. Labor and childbirth are universally considered the toughest and possibly most painful “workout” a body can undergo. What does this mean in terms of women’s overall health and specifically, physical strength?
The power required to bear children and give birth means women are not just strong but extremely strong. In general, women have the same basic health requirements as all human beings in terms of needing good air to breathe, clean water to drink to keep hydrated and adequate whole food nutrition.
Women typically require more calcium than men to keep bones strong due to smaller mass, and during pregnancies, more balanced whole nutrients. In fact, it is men’s overall larger mass and weight that gives them the perceived advantage in strength. When differences in height and weight are factored in, the strength quotient is more similar than not.
Strength is measured not only by how much weight a person can lift, but also by longevity or life expectancy, ability to withstand pain, mental and emotional toughness, and even crisis management.
• Longevity: The global Gerontology Research Group notes that out of the 43 people in the world who’ve made it past the age of 110 years, 42 are women.Scientifically speaking, women tend to live longer than men due to a “complex interaction of biological, environmental and social factors” as per a study published in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of the United States of America.1
• Bearing pain: According to a study conducted at McGill University, women have a higher threshold for pain.2 Can that be why Nature gave women the physique and responsibility for labor and childbirth?
• Mental strength: According to a study conducted by the researchers from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the University of St.Gallen, and NYU Shanghai–women cope with pressure well and do not tend to buckle during tense moments. This is due to the fact that cortisol, the stress hormone, tends to increase less rapidly in women.3
• Emotional strength: A study published in the journal Emotion says that women are adept at identifying sadness and disgust, due to the same hormones that work for reproduction.4 Women are therefore more sensitive to environmental chemicals and deal with them. A study conducted at the Binghamton University in New York and University College London, showed that in case of a break-up, women may feel the hurt deeper as compared to men, but tend to heal faster by dealing with the pain rather than burying it.
• Survival by natural selection: Women have been found to survive the toughest conditions such as famine, extreme climate change, epidemics, etc. Even though a clear reason is yet to be found for women’s exceptional endurance, researchers attribute it to the possibility of a mother’s placenta working harder to maintain the pregnancy and avoid infections in the case of a female fetus. Women get that extra dose of survivability in their mother’s womb itself.5 Pretty much at every age, women seem to survive better than men,” says Steven Austad, an international expert on ageing, and chair of the biology department at the University of Alabama.6
• Strong immune system: Higher levels of estrogen and progesterone could be protecting women in some way, not only by making their immune systems stronger, but also more flexible. This may help maintain a healthy pregnancy. A woman’s immune system is more active in the second half of her menstrual cycle, when she’s able to conceive.7 Even when it comes to everyday coughs and colds, women have the advantage. “If you look across all the different types of infections, women have a more robust immune response,” says Director of the Centre for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Ageing and Disease at Georgetown University Kathryn Sandberg. “If there’s a really bad infection, women survive better. If it’s about the duration of the infection, women will respond faster.”
• High cognitive skills: According to a study conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine, women can maintain their cognitive skills and retain their memories for longer periods of time as men’s brains tend to diminish faster with age. Although men have been proven to have a higher brain volume, women have thicker cortices, the area of the brain that is linked to improved performance on intelligence tests—women therefore outperform men on I.Q. tests.8
So what could it have been in our evolutionary past that gave the female body a little more robustness? Why would women have developed a survival edge? The human body, both male and female, adapted over millennia to their changing environments: Studies of hunter-gatherer societies provide a few clues. Many anthropologists studying tribal communities in Africa, South America, Asia and Australia believe early humans lived fairly equal lives, sharing responsibility for food, shelter and raising children. The evidence shows that women would have done at least the same physical work as men, but with the added burden of bearing children.9
In evolutionary terms, these were the circumstances under which our bodies were shaped. Through a large part of early human history, humans migrated through Africa to the rest of the world, and the women not only travelled hundreds or thousands of miles, under the same extreme environmental conditions as the men, but they also had to reproduce and survive.
Adrienne Zihlman, an anthropologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz, says, “Women have to reproduce. That means being pregnant for nine months. They’ve got to lactate. They’ve got to carry these kids. There’s something about being a human female that was shaped by evolution. There is something about the female form, the female psyche, just the whole package, that was honed over thousands and thousands, even millions, of years to survive.”10
Where super heroes traditionally have been depicted as men in the western world—Superman, Batman, Ant Man, The Flash, etc.—we now have, among many others, Katniss, Black Widow, Xena Princess Warrior, Shuri, and a revival of Mulan who goes back millennia into Chinese folklore, to more accurately reflect the power of women.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 https://www.healthshots.com/mind/are-women-stronger-than-men-here-are-8-scientific-facts-to-put-this-debate-to-rest/
6, 7, 8, 9, 10 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/11/the-weaker-sex-science-that-shows-women-are-stronger-than-men