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Open Access Research article

Doing masculinity, not doing health? a qualitative study among dutch male employees about health beliefs and workplace physical activity

Petra Verdonk1*, Hannes Seesing23 and Angelique de Rijk2

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for Public Health Genomics, Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, School Caphri, Maastricht University, Universiteitssingel 5, 6229 ES Maasstricht, The Netherlands

2 Department of Social Medicine, Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, School of Public Health and Primary Care, School Caphri, Maastricht University, Universiteitssingel 40, Maastricht, The Netherlands

3 Gezondheidscentrum Didam, Panhuis 52, Didam, The Netherlands

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:712  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-712

Published: 19 November 2010



Being female is a strong predictor of health promoting behaviours. Workplaces show great potential for lifestyle interventions, but such interventions do not necessarily take the gendered background of lifestyle behaviours into account. A perspective analyzing how masculine gender norms affect health promoting behaviours is important. This study aims to explore men's health beliefs and attitudes towards health promotion; in particular, it explores workplace physical activity in relation to masculine ideals among male employees.


In the Fall of 2008, we interviewed 13 white Dutch male employees aged 23-56 years. The men worked in a wide range of professions and occupational sectors and all interviewees had been offered a workplace physical activity program. Interviews lasted approximately one to one-and-a-half hour and addressed beliefs about health and lifestyle behaviours including workplace physical activity, as well as normative beliefs about masculinity. Thematic analysis was used to analyze the data.


Two normative themes were found: first, the ideal man is equated with being a winner and real men are prepared to compete, and second, real men are not whiners and ideally, not vulnerable. Workplace physical activity is associated with a particular type of masculinity - young, occupied with looks, and interested in muscle building. Masculine norms are related to challenging health while taking care of health is feminine and, hence, something to avoid. Workplace physical activity is not framed as a health measure, and not mentioned as of importance to the work role.


Competitiveness and nonchalant attitudes towards health shape masculine ideals. In regards to workplace physical activity, some men resist what they perceive to be an emphasis on muscled looks, whereas for others it contributes to looking self-confident. In order to establish a greater reach among vulnerable employees such as ageing men, worksite health promotion programs including workplace physical activity may benefit from greater insight in the tensions between health behaviours and masculinity.