What is the relationship between exercise and metabolic abnormalities? A review of the metabolic syndrome

Sports Med. 2004;34(6):371-418. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200434060-00004.


Prevention of the metabolic syndrome and treatment of its main characteristics are now considered of utmost importance in order to combat the epidemic of type 2 diabetes mellitus and to reduce the increased risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. Insulin resistance/hyperinsulinaemia are consistently linked with a clustering of multiple clinical and subclinical metabolic risk factors. It is now widely recognised that obesity (especially abdominal fat accumulation), hyperglycaemia, dyslipidaemia and hypertension are common metabolic traits that, concurrently, constitute the distinctive insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome. Cross-sectional and prospective data provide an emerging picture of associations of both physical activity habits and cardiorespiratory fitness with the metabolic syndrome. The metabolic syndrome, is a disorder that requires aggressive multi-factorial intervention. Recent treatment guidelines have emphasised the clinical utility of diagnosis and an important treatment role for 'therapeutic lifestyle change', incorporating moderate physical activity. Several previous narrative reviews have considered exercise training as an effective treatment for insulin resistance and other components of the syndrome. However, the evidence cited has been less consistent for exercise training effects on several metabolic syndrome variables, unless combined with appropriate dietary modifications to achieve weight loss. Recently published randomised controlled trial data concerning the effects of exercise training on separate metabolic syndrome traits are evaluated within this review. Novel systematic review and meta-analysis evidence is presented indicating that supervised, long-term, moderate to moderately vigorous intensity exercise training, in the absence of therapeutic weight loss, improves the dyslipidaemic profile by raising high density lipoprotein-cholesterol and lowering triglycerides in overweight and obese adults with characteristics of the metabolic syndrome. Lifestyle interventions, including exercise and dietary-induced weight loss may improve insulin resistance and glucose tolerance in obesity states and are highly effective in preventing or delaying the onset of type 2 diabetes in individuals with impaired glucose regulation. Randomised controlled trial evidence also indicates that exercise training decreases blood pressure in overweight/obese individuals with high normal blood pressure and hypertension. These evidence-based findings continue to support recommendations that supervised or partially supervised exercise training is an important initial adjunctive step in the treatment of individuals with the metabolic syndrome. Exercise training should be considered an essential part of 'therapeutic lifestyle change' and may concurrently improve insulin resistance and the entire cluster of metabolic risk factors.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Metabolic Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Metabolic Syndrome / prevention & control*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Risk Factors
  • Sports Medicine* / standards
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology