Christine Yu on why women may finally get attention of sports science – The Washington Post

When Christine Yu set out for a run on her neighborhood track in 2012, the last thing she expected was an injury. But when she heard and felt a pop in her knee, she knew she was in trouble. Fifteen years earlier, Yu had torn the ACL in that same knee, and she recognized the pain and symptoms.
Yu also recognized a familiar set of emotions: shame and embarrassment that her body had yet again “failed” her.
As a journalist who covers women’s sports and health, Yu noticed that, like her, female athletes often blamed themselves for injuries and shortcomings in performance. The cause, she began to surmise, was a gap in the field of sports science surrounding female athletes.
Before the enactment in 1972 of Title IX, the law banning sex discrimination in sports and other federally supported education programs, only 1 in 27 girls in the United States played organized sports. By 2016, that number had increased to 2 in 5, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Title IX not only increased participation among women athletes but also pushed the envelope on scientific research funding. Fifty years in, however, gaps still remain.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the National Institutes of Health established a policy encouraging researchers to include women in clinical research, and it took until 1993 for enactment of a law requiring inclusion of women in such research.
Yu set out to learn more, and the result is her book “Up to Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes,” which was released last week. Yu sat down for an interview with The Washington Post about her findings.
Q: Your book is releasing at a moment full of other noteworthy memoirs and nonfiction books by and for female athletes. Your work joins “Running While Black,” by Alison Mariella Désir, and “Good for a Girl,” by Lauren Fleshman. Why do you think now is the moment for that?
A: The momentum has been building for years. There are so many more people watching women athletes do amazing things. At the same time, girls and women are active consumers of fitness and all of what that entails. Women are staying active longer, and they want to see their stories reflected in media. While many of the other recent books are memoirs, mine provides a macro-view into women’s sports.
Q: Your book begins by laying out the history of how sex and gender bias came to sustain the system of scientific research and sports, and how that has played out in participation, performance, injury and long-term health. What did you learn from this historical overview?
A: One of the things that really made me pause was that everything came back to the Harvard Fatigue Lab in the 1920s, considered the birthplace of sports science. After that lab closed in the 1940s, its staff and students scattered and formed 17 new labs across the country. They were all males, and their research focused on male athletes. The parameters, people and environments that we inherited have created a systemic issue. It’s easy to say “scientists don’t care,” and to fault them for these biases, but the systems in which they work influence how they act and the decisions they make.
Q: You dedicate an entire chapter to “bounce control,” the role of women’s breasts and sports bras in athletic performance. Why is that?
A: If the majority of athletes and researchers are men who don’t have breasts, they don’t think about how breasts can affect you when you’re active and moving. They also may not consider it a valid line of study.
In our culture, breasts are sexualized on the one hand and associated with reproduction on the other. But breast motion and sports bras — which were not even invented until the mid-1970s — impact how women experience physical activity. The body compensates when movement gets to be too much.
Traditional biomechanics research didn’t have a method for measuring the movement of breast tissue, and it wasn’t until the late 2000s that it was taken seriously. Better sports bras are changing the relationship between women and sport. Today, that’s extending into women-specific gear, too, which until recently, wasn’t a market gear-makers targeted: It was “shrink it and pink it.” [“Shrink it and pink it” is slang for simply making men’s gear smaller and in pretty colors, rather than making women-specific gear.]
Q: Let’s talk about the pre- and postmenopausal years. Sports science has traditionally left these stages of life out of the equation. Why is that, and how is that changing?
A: In our culture, these years have traditionally been positioned as the last stages of life. But if the average age of menopause is 51, you’d hope there’s a good deal of life left to live. Research into this stage of life has largely been health oriented, looking at cardiovascular disease and cancer risk. But women are staying active much longer now and don’t want to give that up.
We now have women who are doctors and researchers who grew up in the wake of Title IX, and they are taking the reins and can now begin to study this age group. Acknowledging it’s important is a good first step, but it’s going to take time to have more concrete and useful data.
Q: You begin your book telling the story of your second ACL tear. Recently, you tore your other ACL while skiing in Lake Tahoe. What was different about this time vs. your experience back in 2012?
A: When I landed funny, I knew I had messed something up. My brother was with me and we were trying to figure out what was going on.
What surprised me was how calm I was this time versus the other two. In the first instances, I was so angry at myself and felt like there was something wrong with me and my body.
To sit there in the snow this time and realize my injury was just sheer bad luck was a revelation for me. Because of my reporting, I knew I didn’t do anything wrong and that it’s not my body’s fault I was hurt. Being able to remove that onus has been really helpful as I work to rehab my injury this time.
Q: Does your own experience, coupled with your research, leave you feeling hopeful for the future of women and sports science?
A: With the growing number of people recognizing and calling for more research into women and sports, I do feel optimistic. I’m not saying we’re going to have an entirely new set of guidelines for women, but more the recognition that we need more diverse and inclusive research, writ large. Without that, we don’t know what to ask.
The next generations of girls are speaking up and demanding change from their schools, coaches and the system they inhabit. Seeing them go out on a limb, and accomplishing amazing things in sport, is incredibly inspiring.
Sign up for the Well+Being newsletter, your source of expert advice and simple tips to help you live well every day
Well+Being shares news and advice for living well every day. Sign up for our newsletter to get tips directly in your inbox.
Across the life span, boys and men are more likely to die than girls and women.
SuperAgers have lessons for us about longevity, cognitive health as we age
Popular keto and paleo diets aren’t helping your heart
Quiz: Are you an Ableist?
Exercise leads to sharper thinking and a healthier brain.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top