Sex-dependent differences in voluntary physical activity

J Neurosci Res. 2017 Jan 2;95(1-2):279-290. doi: 10.1002/jnr.23896.


Numbers of overweight and obese individuals are increasing in the United States and globally, and, correspondingly, the associated health care costs are rising dramatically. More than one-third of children are currently considered obese with a predisposition to type 2 diabetes, and it is likely that their metabolic conditions will worsen with age. Physical inactivity has also risen to be the leading cause of many chronic, noncommunicable diseases (NCD). Children are more physically inactive now than they were in past decades, which may be due to intrinsic and extrinsic factors. In rodents, the amount of time engaged in spontaneous activity within the home cage is a strong predictor of later adiposity and weight gain. Thus, it is important to understand primary motivators stimulating physical activity (PA). There are normal sex differences in PA levels in rodents and humans. The perinatal environment can induce sex-dependent differences in PA disturbances. This Review considers the current evidence for sex differences in PA in rodents and humans. The rodent studies showing that early exposure to environmental chemicals can shape later adult PA responses are discussed. Next, whether there are different motivators stimulating exercise in male vs. female humans are examined. Finally, the brain regions, genes, and pathways that modulate PA in rodents, and possibly by translation in humans, are described. A better understanding of why each sex remains physically active through the life span could open new avenues for preventing and treating obesity in children and adults. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: brain; developmental origins of adult health and disease; diet; dopamine signaling; endocrine disruptors; estrogen; hippocampus; hypothalamus; maternal effects; motivation; nucleus accumbens; physical activity; prefrontal cortex; sexual dimorphism.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Motivation / physiology
  • Sex Characteristics*