First-Ever All-Female Antarctic Expedition Busts Women's Endurance Myth

Iceberg in the Antarctic
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Women who trekked across Antarctica in the first-ever all-female expedition broke more than gender norms — they also busted the gender myth that, when it comes to extreme endurance exercise, women are weaker than men.

Sorry men, that's not the case.

"Our findings contain some potentially myth-busting data on the impact of extreme physical activity on women," lead study author Dr. Robert Gifford, of the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Cardiovascular Science, said in a statement. "We have shown that with appropriate training and preparation, many of the previously reported negative health effects [of extreme exercise on women] can be avoided."

The new findings — presented today (Nov. 19) at the Society for Endocrinology's annual meeting in Glasgow, Scotland — contradict some previous research that suggested women experienced more negative effects on their hormone and stress levels than men in response to extreme physical activity. [Men vs. Women: Our Key Physical Differences Explained]

For example, some studies have reported that extreme exertion can suppress female reproductive hormones, impair bone strength and increase levels of stress hormones to a greater degree than in men. But the reasons for these reported differences were unclear.

Into the ice

To better understand the effects of extreme endurance on women, researchers in the new study examined members of the Ice Maiden team, a group of six women from the British army who became the first all-female team to ski across Antarctica. During the two-month journey (from November 2017 to January 2018), the women covered more than 1,000 miles (1,700 kilometers) while pulling 170-pound (80 kilograms) sledges behind them, according to the BBC. The women faced treacherous conditions, including 60-mph winds and temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius).

Before, during and after the expedition, the researchers monitored several markers of health, including indicators of stress, hormone levels, body weight and bone strength.

During the expedition, the women lost about 20 pounds (9 kg) of fat mass each, but they did not lose any lean mass, the study found.

In addition, markers of metabolic, hormonal and bone health were largely unaffected by the trip, and those that did change went back to normal shortly afterward.

The findings demonstrate "marked resilience" in hormonal function, stress response and bone strength in women in response to extreme endurance exercise, the researchers wrote in their study abstract.

The researchers note that the women underwent rigorous training before the expedition, which may have helped mitigate any negative health effects.

The researchers plan to further investigate the types of activities and circumstances that contribute to negative health effects caused by physical exertion, and how the effects can be prevented.

"These findings could have important relevance for men and women in arduous or stressful employment, where there is concern that they are damaging their health," Gifford said. "If an appropriate training and nutritional regime is followed, their health may be protected."

Originally published on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.