Physical activity is related to insulin sensitivity in children and adolescents, independent of adiposity: a review of the literature

Diabetes Metab Res Rev. 2012 Jul;28(5):395-408. doi: 10.1002/dmrr.2292. Epub 2012 Mar 2.


In adults, there is evidence that physical activity effectively improves insulin sensitivity regardless of adiposity. Whether this is also the case in children and adolescents is less clear. Clarifying this matter may help to identify the best outcomes to target in exercise programs for these age groups, where changes in adiposity may not always be desirable or realistic. A review of the literature was conducted on studies that examined the relationships of physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness and strength with insulin sensitivity independent of adiposity in children and adolescents. Experimental (intervention) and correlational (longitudinal and cross-sectional) studies on participants ages 18 years and younger were identified. A total of 42 studies were included in this review. Sample sizes in the studies ranged from 14 to 4955 participants, with individual ages ranging from 5 to 19 years. A significant relationship with insulin sensitivity existed in 78% of studies on physical activity, 69% of studies on cardiorespiratory fitness and 66% of studies on strength. In studies that examined both physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness concurrently, evidence suggests that they are both correlated with insulin sensitivity independent of adiposity, especially when physical activity is at higher intensities. However, the strength of this relationship might be influenced by study design, measurement techniques and participant characteristics. This is the first review of its type to take research design into account and to examine study outcomes according to participant ethnicity, gender, age, pubertal status and weight status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adiposity / physiology*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Insulin Resistance / physiology*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male