Fitness is measured by factors like speed, strength, flexibility and gender

September 04, 1995|By Mary Flannery | Mary Flannery,Knight-Ridder News Service

All men are created equal . . .

Not exactly.

Some men -- and some women -- jump higher and run faster than others, just to mention a few physical differences. And most men jump higher and run faster than most women, a fact recognized by organizations that recruit people who must be physically fit.

The armed services, police and fire departments judge men and women by different performance standards that take into account the physiological differences between the sexes. Even the South Carolina military college, the Citadel, which last month lost its lone female candidate, was holding that woman to a different physical standard.

"The average woman is not as strong as the average man, and the strongest woman isn't as strong as the strongest man," says women's health specialist Dr. Mona Shangold, co-author of "The Complete Sports Medicine Book for Women."

"But it doesn't mean a woman can't be strong."

The practice of judging male and female strength by different measures is called "gender norming." The Citadel's most famous dropout, Shannon Faulkner, was never expected to run as fast and do as many push-ups as the men. She was training for the U.S. Army women's fitness test when she was felled by heat stroke.

Women recruits must run 2 miles in 18 minutes, 54 seconds, which is three minutes slower than the required time for men. They must do 18 push-ups in two minutes and 50 sit-ups in two minutes while men must do 42 push-ups and 52 sit-ups in the same times.

A matter of hormones

Gender norming is based on the recognition that sex hormones program the genders differently.

"The average woman has more body fat because women have higher circulating levels of estrogen than men, while men have higher levels of testosterone," said Dr. Shangold, who is an obstetrics-gynecology professor at Medical College of Pennsylvania/Hahnemann University. "Estrogen promotes the formation of fat in certain places, and testosterone promotes formation of muscles."

Gender norming got its start when women who were seeking admission to all-male ranks demanded and received their own separate-but-equal fitness standards.

Many police departments use physical fitness guidelines developed by the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. Since 1970, the institute, founded by running guru Dr. Kenneth Cooper, has tested the cardiovascular function, flexibility, percentage of body fat and levels of muscular strength of more than 40,000 adult men and women. From these participants' data, the institute developed fitness standards based on sex and age.

In every Cooper category but one, men are stronger or faster than women. The exception is flexibility, in which women score better than men at any age.

This is measured by a sit-and-reach test: Sit on the floor with the legs extended and the soles of feet against a box that offers resistance. Put one hand on the other, flex the trunk and reach for the toes.

"Women tend to have better low-back and hamstring flexibility than men of the same age," said Dr. Steve Farrell, Cooper Institute associate director.

Using the Cooper standards for male and female police recruits provides equal assessment of their skills, said an administrator with the Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission that represents Pennsylvania's local police departments.

"Women are meeting different requirements than men, but that type of norming makes passing a physical test equal because of the physiological differences between men and women," said Bob Nardi, administrative officer. "For example, we have different standards for upper body strength. Men inherently have more upper body strength. It doesn't mean women have none or that they can't be police officers.

"How much you lift depends on how much you weigh, your gender and age. A 105-pound woman and 105-pound man of the same height won't be muscled the same, so their strength is not going to be equal."

Gender norming of physical fitness standards has not been successfully challenged in the courts. But the federal 1991 Civil Rights Act, which bans different written standards based on age or gender as discriminatory, does not specifically address the legality of physical standards.

The standards adopted by police agencies do not reflect what the fittest 20- or 30-year-old can accomplish. Instead, most police agencies take the results of average 20- or 30-year-olds, which is people who fall into the 50th percentile. Some municipalities even use the 40th percentile as their standard.

"We feel it is very reasonable to expect a police officer to be at least as fit as the average person on the street," said Cooper's Dr. Farrell.

"The 99th percentile would be a very unrealistic goal for most people. But if someone scores at the 10th percentile, training studies have shown you can take unfit people, put them on training programs for several weeks and increase cardiovascular fitness levels by up to 30 percent.

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