The Effect of Vigorous- Versus Moderate-Intensity Aerobic Exercise on Insulin Action

Curr Cardiol Rep. 2016 Dec;18(12):117. doi: 10.1007/s11886-016-0797-7.


Due to the beneficial effects on a wide range of modern medical conditions, most professional societies recommend regular aerobic exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. Many of the exercise-related health benefits exhibit a dose-response relationship: Up to a point, more exercise is more beneficial. However, recent studies have suggested that different exercise intensities may provide distinct health benefits, independent of energy expenditure (i.e., exercise dose). One of these benefits, primarily mediated by the skeletal muscle, is exercise-related changes in insulin action and glucose homeostasis. Glucose uptake in the exercising muscle occurs through insulin-independent mechanisms whose downstream signaling events ultimately converge with insulin-signaling pathways, a fact that may explain why exercise and insulin have additive effect on skeletal muscle glucose uptake. Although the existing evidence is somewhat conflicting, well-controlled randomized studies suggest that, when controlled for total energy expenditure, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise improves insulin sensitivity more than vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise. The mechanisms underlying this difference are largely unknown. One possible explanation involves enhanced metabolism of fatty acid stores in the skeletal muscle by moderate-intensity exercise, which may directly improve insulin sensitivity. Overall, new technologic and physiologic investigative tools are beginning to shed light on the biology. Further understanding of these mechanisms will lead to better understanding of the clinical implications of a healthy lifestyle and may ultimately offer new therapeutic targets for common medical conditions such as insulin resistance and diabetes.

Keywords: Aerobic training; Exercise intensity; Insulin action; Insulin sensitivity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Blood Glucose / metabolism
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Glucose Transporter Type 4 / physiology
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Insulin / metabolism*
  • Insulin Resistance / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Physical Exertion / physiology*
  • Risk Reduction Behavior*
  • Sedentary Behavior
  • Signal Transduction


  • Blood Glucose
  • Glucose Transporter Type 4
  • Insulin