A study by experts from St George’s, University of London showed that female athletes are less likely to experience changes to their heart as a result of endurance exercise compared to men. It also showed that sudden cardiac death occurs much more rarely in female athletes.

athletes using rowing machines

This suggests that sex differences have an impact on cardiac adaptation to exercise and fatal irregular heart beats, or arrhythmias.

The study found that female hearts adapt to endurance exercise by increasing the heart chamber’s dimensions, while for male athletes the heart’s wall chamber thickens on the left.

It means that changes in a female athlete’s heart that might usually be attributed to exercise could warrant further investigation to rule out cardiac issues.

Dr Gherardo Finocchiaro, a cardiologist at St George’s, said: "The vast majority of the studies evaluating cardiac adaptation in athletes have focused on males, although the past three decades have observed an exponential increase in the number of women participating in competitive sport.

"It is important to fully understand the effect of gender on cardiac adaptation to exercise to differentiate whether physical changes are due to exercise or cardiac diseases."

For many years competitive sport has been dominated by male participants, but female participation has increased in the last 20 years, with women making up 45 per cent of competitors at the London 2012 Olympics.

The study looked at 1,083 highly trained athletes, 443 of whom were female, to see whether there were differences in their hearts. The research was published in the Future Cardiology Journal.

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