To examine the influences of age, gender, and habitual physical activity level on human skeletal muscle composition, we developed a relatively simple magnetic resonance imaging method for the quantitation of leg anterior compartment contractile and noncontractile content. We studied 23 young (11 women and 12 men, 26-44 yr old) and 21 older (10 women and 11 men, 65-83 yr old) healthy adults. Analysis was by two-factor (age, gender) ANOVA. Physical activity, quantitated by three-dimensional accelerometer worn about the waist for 1 wk, was not different between groups. Men had larger contractile and noncontractile cross-sectional areas (cm(2)) than women, with no gender effect on percent noncontractile area. Young subjects had larger contractile areas and smaller absolute (cm(2)) and relative (percent total) noncontractile areas than older subjects. There was a significant linear relationship between physical activity and percent noncontractile area in older (r = -0.68, P = 0.002) but not young subjects. These data demonstrate a more than twofold increase in the noncontractile content of locomotor muscles in older adults and provide novel support for physical activity as a modulator of this age-related change in muscle composition.