A low resting metabolic rate (RMR) is a risk factor for future weight gain. We tested the hypothesis that the age-related decline in RMR in sedentary women is not observed in women who exercise regularly. Sixty-five healthy, weight-stable women, aged 21-35 or 50-72 yr, were studied: 12 premenopausal and 15 postmenopausal sedentary women, 13 premenopausal and 15 postmenopausal distance runners, and 10 endurance-trained postmenopausal swimmers. RMR was measured by indirect calorimetry (ventilated hood system) after an overnight fast, and values were adjusted for fat mass and fat-free mass (RMRadj). The RMRadj was approximately 10% lower in the postmenopausal vs. premenopausal sedentary women (52 +/- 2 vs. 57 +/- 2 Cal/h; P < 0.002). In contrast, RMRadj was not significantly different in the premenopausal (59 +/- 2 Cal/h) and postmenopausal (57 +/- 1 Cal/h) distance runners. The postmenopausal swimmers had a RMRadj (57 +/- 2 Cal/h) identical to that of the postmenopausal runners, suggesting a generalized influence of the endurance exercise-trained state in postmenopausal women. Group differences in RMRadj were not associated with differences in total energy intake or composition or with plasma concentrations of norepinephrine, T3, or T4. However, maximal oxygen consumption (aerobic fitness) accounted for 35% of the individual variance in RMRadj in the overall population (r = 0.59; P < 0.001). Our results are consistent with the concept that the age-related decline in RMR in sedentary women is not observed in women who regularly perform endurance exercise. The elevated level of RMR observed in middle-aged and older exercising women may play a role in their lower levels of body weight and fatness compared to those in sedentary women.