Exercise and vascular adaptation in asymptomatic humans

Exp Physiol. 2011 Feb;96(2):57-70. doi: 10.1113/expphysiol.2009.048694. Epub 2010 Oct 22.


Beneficial effects of exercise training on the vasculature have been consistently reported in subjects with cardiovascular risk factors or disease, whereas studies in apparently healthy subjects have been less uniform. In this review, we examine evidence pertaining to the impact of exercise training on conduit and resistance vessel function and structure in asymptomatic subjects. Studies of arterial function in vivo have mainly focused on the endothelial nitric oxide dilator system, which has generally been shown to improve following training. Some evidence suggests that the magnitude of benefit depends upon the intensity or volume of training and the relative impact of exercise on upregulation of dilator pathways versus effects of inflammation and/or oxidation. Favourable effects of training on autonomic balance, baroreflex function and brainstem modulation of sympathetic control have been reported, but there is also evidence that basal vasoconstrictor tone increases as a result of training such that improvements in intrinsic vasodilator function and arterial remodelling are counterbalanced at rest. Studies of compliance suggest increases in both the arterial and the venous sides of the circulation, particularly in older subjects. In terms of mechanisms, shear stress appears to be a key signal to improvement in vascular function, whilst increases in pulse pressure and associated haemodynamics during bouts of exercise may transduce vascular adaptation, even in vascular beds which are distant from the active muscle. Different exercise modalities are associated with idiosyncratic patterns of blood flow and shear stress, and this may have some impact on the magnitude of exercise training effects on arterial function and remodelling. Other studies support the theory that that there may be different time course effects of training on specific vasodilator and constrictor pathways. A new era of understanding of the direct impacts of exercise and training on the vasculature is evolving, and future studies will benefit greatly from technological advances which allow direct characterization of arterial function and structure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Arteries / physiology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Hemodynamics / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Cardiovascular*
  • Physical Exertion / physiology*