Physical inactivity and unloading lead to diverse skeletal muscle alterations. Our goal was to identify the genes in skeletal muscle whose expression is most sensitive to periods of unloading/reduced physical activity and that may be involved in triggering initial responses before phenotypic changes are evident. The ability of short periods of physical activity/loading as an effective countermeasure against changes in gene expression mediated by inactivity was also tested. Affymetrix microarrays were used to compare mRNA levels in the soleus muscle under three experimental treatments (n = 20-29 rats each): 12-h hindlimb unloading (HU), 12-h HU followed by 4 h of intermittent low-intensity ambulatory and postural activity (4-h reloading), and control (with ambulatory and postural activity). Using a combination of criteria, we identified a small set of genes (approximately 1% of 8,738 genes on the array or 4% of significant expressed genes) with the most reproducible and largest responses to altered activity. Analysis revealed a coordinated regulation of transcription for a large number of key signaling proteins and transcription factors involved in protein synthesis/degradation and energy metabolism. Most (21 of 25) of the gene expression changes that were downregulated during HU returned at least to control levels during the reloading. In surprising contrast, 27 of 38 of the genes upregulated during HU remained significantly above control, but most showed trends toward reversal. This introduces a new concept that, in general, genes that are upregulated during unloading/inactivity will be more resistant to periodic reloading than those genes that are downregulated. This study reveals genes that are the most sensitive to loading/activity in rat skeletal muscle and indicates new targets that may initiate muscle alterations during inactivity.