Mechanisms of Sex Differences in Exercise Capacity

Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2019 Jun 1;316(6):R832-R838. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00394.2018. Epub 2019 Apr 24.


Sex differences are an important component of National Institutes of Health rigor. The goal of this investigation was to test the hypothesis that female mice have greater exercise capacity than male mice, and that it is due to estrogen, nitric oxide, and myosin heavy chain expression. Female C57BL6/J wild-type mice exhibited greater (P < 0.05) maximal exercise capacity for running distance (489 ± 15 m) than age-matched male counterparts (318 ± 15 m), as well as 20% greater work to exhaustion. When matched for weight or muscle mass, females still maintained greater exercise capacity than males. Increased type I and decreased type II myosin heavy chain fibers in the soleus muscle from females are consistent with fatigue resistance and better endurance in females compared with males. After ovariectomy, female mice no longer demonstrated enhanced exercise, and treatment of male mice with estrogen resulted in exercise capacity similar to that of intact females (485 ± 37 m). Nitric oxide synthase, a downstream target of estrogen, exhibited higher activity in female mice compared with male mice, P < 0.05, whereas ovariectomized females exhibited nitric oxide synthase levels similar to males. Nitric oxide synthase activity also increased in males treated with chronic estrogen to levels of intact females. Nitric oxide synthase blockade with Nω-nitro-l-arginine methyl ester eliminated the sex differences in exercise capacity. Thus estrogen, nitric oxide, and myosin heavy chain expression are important mechanisms mediating the enhanced exercise performance in females.

Keywords: -NAME; estrogen; exercise capacity; nitric oxide; sex.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Estrogens / metabolism
  • Exercise Tolerance / drug effects
  • Exercise Tolerance / physiology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • NG-Nitroarginine Methyl Ester / pharmacology
  • Nitric Oxide / metabolism*
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase / drug effects
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase / metabolism
  • Ovariectomy / methods
  • Physical Conditioning, Animal / physiology*
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sex Factors


  • Estrogens
  • Nitric Oxide
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase
  • NG-Nitroarginine Methyl Ester