The relationship between physical activity levels and disease rates has become an important health-related concern in the developed world. Heart disease, certain cancers and obesity persist at epidemic rates in the US and Western Europe. Increased physical activity levels have been shown to reduce the occurrence of many chronic diseases leading to reductions in the burden on the healthcare system. Activity levels in humans are affected by many cultural and environmental factors; nevertheless, current research points to a strong biological input with potential genetic, neurological and endocrinological origins. Of unique interest, the sex hormones appear to have a very strong influence on activity levels. The current animal literature suggests that females tend to be more active than males due to biological pathways of estrogenic origin. The majority of human epidemiological and anthropological data, on the contrary, suggest women are less active than men in spite of this inherent activity-increasing mechanism.
The purpose of this study is to review the current literature regarding the control of physical activity levels by the sex hormones in humans. Using the natural transitional phases of the aging endocrine system, natural periodicity of the menstrual cycle and pharmacological/hormone replacement therapy as variable experimental stages, some authors have been able to provide some information regarding the existence of an inherent activity-increasing mechanism in humans. In brief, activity levels during life stages prior to and after menopause do not significantly differ, despite the vast changes in sex hormone levels and function. Sex hormone differences throughout a regular menstrual cycle do not appear to influence activity levels in humans either; an effect that is pronounced in the female rodent. The use of hormone replacement therapies provides researchers with more systematic controls over hormone modulation in human subjects; however, this benefit comes with additional confounding variables, mostly due to disease or other states of malfunction. Despite the addition of these confounding factors, minor changes to the activity pattern have been observed in women, especially during the initial administration of the therapy. Observations are yet to be made in male subjects during replacement therapy.
In general, some evidence exists suggesting that a biological mechanism extending from the sex hormones influences activity in humans. Unfortunately, despite a small number of investigative reports, the paucity of human research investigating how the sex hormones affect activity levels in humans prevents conclusive delineation of the mechanisms involved. Future research in this unique sub-field of endocrinology and exercise science utilizing more appropriate research protocols and effective techniques will provide definitive evidence of such mechanisms.