Various Factors May Modulate the Effect of Exercise on Testosterone Levels in Men – Part II

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Part 2: Changes in Basal Resting Testosterone Levels


(A) Endurance and Resistance Exercise


Many studies have addressed the effect of habitual or intervention exercise on basal (resting) serum testosterone concentrations, with no clear effect reported so far. Studies have investigated the associations between the degree of physical activity and basal plasma testosterone concentrations. The 5-year-long NHANES study included 738 participants, who were classified in three tertiles, based on metabolic equivalent of task (MET) score, and according to the compendium of physical activities. No cross-sectional association was found between a greater physical activity and changes in basal plasma testosterone concentrations. Houmard et al. [29] showed that despite increasing endurance exercise’s frequency, duration, and intensity over 14 weeks (3–4 days/week, 30–45 min/day), no significant changes in the resting plasma testosterone concentrations were noted. 


Similarly, White et al. [30] found no change in resting testosterone concentrations with higher training mileage (i.e., 100% increase in the habitual distance run for 12 weeks) in recreational joggers. MacKelvie et al. [31] showed similar basal serum testosterone concentrations between long-distance runners and age-matched sedentary controls. In highly trained swimmers, the basal plasma testosterone concentrations did not differ between periods of intensive training and exercise tapering. Interestingly, some studies have even shown that chronic endurance exercise can correlate inversely with basal serum testosterone concentrations. For instance, professional cyclists tend to have lower basal T-Testo after major competitions compared to baseline. Safarinejad et al. [34] conducted a randomized trial of middle-age men undergoing intensive treadmill running. Throughout the study period, these men had low basal serum testosterone concentrations, which was associated with low follicular-stimulating hormone (FSH) and LH levels. 


The authors hypothesized that exercise-associated stress induced production of reactive oxygen species that can suppress the hypothalamic pituitary axis and cause hypogonadotropic hypogonadism. Interestingly, the sex hormone binding globulin levels did not decrease with declining T-Testo, reflecting that the serum testosterone changes are not related to the variation in serum binding globulin. Hackney et al. [35] reported that endurance trained men had lower T-Testo than sedentary men. In this study, LH levels were not elevated despite the lower limit values of testosterone, which may indicate HPA axis suppression with long-term endurance exercise. On the other hand, lower basal testosterone concentrations have been reported despite unaltered plasma LH and FSH levels [36]. Thus, although low basal testosterone concentration is likely due to HPA suppression and hypogonadotropic hypogonadism during chronic exercise, additional contributing factors affecting the serum testosterone concentrations in the absence of LH suppression are yet to be determined.


Although studies have proven that resistance exercise can cause significant acute changes in serum testosterone concentrations, similar changes were not observed in basal plasma testosterone levels. Nicklas et al. [37] reported no significant change in basal serum testosterone concentrations after 16 weeks of progressive resistance training program. Moreover, the previously mentioned study by Hansen et al. [15] showed unchanged resting testosterone concentrations during unilateral biceps curl exercise alone or in combination with bilateral knee extensions and leg press. Therefore, independent of exercise type, nature, or intensity, exercise does not seem to increase resting T-Testo. Based on these studies, exercise either decreases or have a neutral effect on T-Testo.


(B) Obesity


The effect of exercise on basal serum testosterone concentrations in obese individuals has been evaluated in multiple studies. Although Moradi et al. [38] reported significant increases in basal serum testosterone concentrations in obese men after 12 weeks of resistance exercise (Basal vs. post-exercise: 23.9 ± 8.3 vs. 28.4 ± 5.9 nmol/L, p = 0.018), this correlation was not found in another study using a similar population and the same exercise type [39]. Kumagai et al. [40] investigated the effect of a 12-week aerobic exercise intervention on circulating serum testosterone concentrations in overweight/obese men. At baseline, T-Testo were significantly lower in overweight/obese men than in normal-weight men (p < 0.01). After the 12-week aerobic exercise intervention, serum testosterone concentrations significantly increased in the overweight/obese men (p < 0.01). In addition, stepwise multivariable linear regression analysis revealed that the increase in vigorous physical activity was independently associated with increased basal T-Testo (p = 0.011). 


Similarly, Rosety et al. [41] reported that a 16-week-long aerobic training program on a treadmill, with three sessions per week, increased the basal serum testosterone concentrations in obese men (baseline vs. post-test range: 15.1 vs. 16.6 nmol/L, p = 0.036). Khoo et al. [42] reported significant increases in serum testosterone concentrations in individuals with obesity after 24-weeks of high volume moderate-intensity exercise. Thus, most of the studies in overweight/obese men have shown a direct correlation between both aerobic and anaerobic exercise and plasma testosterone concentrations. Surprisingly, these results contradict the results of studies in lean individuals, where even those using strict protocols to stimulate acute testosterone increases failed to change basal testosterone concentrations (see above). One possible explanation for these findings is the weight/fat mass loss effect. Some studies showing direct correlations between exercise and serum testosterone concentrations also showed decreased fat mass and waist circumference in individuals with obesity. Whether increase in basal testosterone concentrations is solely due to exercise, or is secondary to weight loss is still to be determined.


(C) Age


The effect of exercise on basal serum testosterone concentrations in older men is not clearly understood. Ari et al. [43] reported that well-trained, athletic older men have significantly higher resting T-Testo than age-matched sedentary men (sedentary vs. athletic: 18.7 ± 5.9 vs. 28.8 ± 4.5 nmol/L p < 0.01). However, other studies were unable to distinguish differences in basal T-Testo between lifelong trained and sedentary elderly men (Hayes et al. [44] and Tissandier et al. [45]).


Some studies have been conducted to assess the changes in serum testosterone concentrations during exercise in elderly men. Hayes et al. [46] examined the impact of 6-week-long supervised exercise training on resting concentrations of serum testosterone in a cohort of lifelong sedentary men, compared to a control group of age-matched lifelong exercisers. The results revealed that only sedentary men experienced a significant exercise-induced increase in resting T-Testo. Another study by Lovell et al. [47] found no significant changes in resting plasma testosterone concentrations after 16 weeks of aerobic or resistance exercise in men aged 70–80 years. Of note, T-Testo increased immediately post sub-maximum exercise in all groups, showing a pattern similar to the post-exercise results in young adults (see above). Sellami et al. [32] conducted a randomized trial to test the effect of exercise on serum testosterone fluctuations in moderately trained young and middle-aged men (average age 20 vs. 40 years, respectively). At rest, lower T-Testo were reported in the middle-aged compared to the younger group. However, after 13-weeks of intensive anaerobic activity, the levels taken 48 h to 7 days post-exercise cessation were significantly increased in the middle-aged group, eliminating the age-associated difference between the groups. It was previously questioned whether the exercise protocols contributed to the variable results in these studies. However, even in studies involving populations with similar age, physical activity status, exercise background, and protocol duration, the change of basal plasma testosterone concentrations during exercise has not been consistent. Based on the current literature, no conclusions can be drawn on the effect of exercise on basal serum testosterone concentrations in older men.


Discussion/ Conclusion


This review highlights that substantial research has been done on the effect of exercise on (a) acute immediate; and (b) basal or resting post-exercise serum testosterone concentrations in men. Regardless of pre-existing conditioning, body weight, or age, sufficient evidence indicates that resistance exercise, when combined with larger muscle involvement (multi-joint movements), bigger exercise volume, sufficient intensity (moderate/high), and short resting intervals between training sets, may result in optimal acute increases in serum testosterone concentrations. However, the magnitude of this acute hormonal change is lower in older men or those with obesity.


Whether this temporary surge in post-training serum testosterone concentrations has any impact on the extent of muscle anabolism and hypertrophy is widely debated. Multiple studies found a direct link between post-exercise serum testosterone changes and muscular hypertrophic adaptation/increase in lean body mass. A possible explanation is that increases in serum testosterone concentrations mediate an upregulation in acute androgen receptor expression and subsequent increases in myofibrillar protein synthesis, possibly because of enhanced ligand binding capacity or activation of the testosterone-androgen receptor signaling pathway. 


Post-exercise peak plasma testosterone enhances androgen receptor mRNA translation and increases its half-life. Evidence suggests that acute increases in serum testosterone concentrations during exercise may likely optimize hypertrophic adaptations via enhancing the testosterone-androgen receptor. On the other hand, Wilkinson et al. [67] observed significant gains in strength and hypertrophy in the absence of any measurable changes in F-Testo and insulin growth factor 1. A study by West et al. [68] showed that exposure of muscles to basal or high serum testosterone concentrations with exercise can result in similar muscle adaptations and hypertrophy. Thus, there is no solid evidence that the post-exercise acute plasma testosterone spike has a beneficial effect on muscle hypertrophy.


Data on whether exercise induces prolonged testosterone stimulation is still limited, with the majority of studies showing similar resting serum testosterone concentrations in active and inactive individuals. Some promising studies in older men have shown a direct correlation between exercise and basal plasma testosterone concentrations; however, conclusions are still preliminary until a greater depth of literature is available. Similarly, studies showing positive correlations between exercise and increased basal plasma testosterone concentrations in overweight/obese individuals also showed significant associated fat loss. Whether this effect is secondary to weight loss and less aromatization, or solely secondary to exercise, is unclear.

In conclusion, the up-to-date data on the effect of exercise on serum testosterone concentrations in men have significant inter-individual and inter-study variability. This variability can be explained by (a) the use of different types of exercise (e.g., endurance vs. resistance); (b) the other factors of the training (e.g., training intensity or duration of resting periods); (c) the variety in study populations (e.g., young vs. elderly; lean vs. obese; sedentary vs. athletes); and (d) the time points when testosterone was measured (e.g., during or immediately after vs. several minutes or hours after the exercise). It is our conclusion that future studies should focus on clarifying the metabolic and molecular mechanisms whereby exercise may affect testosterone production in the short- and long-term, and furthermore how this release affects downstream mechanisms; such knowledge will be the key to understanding the exercise-testosterone-muscle hypertrophy axis.


Reference : Functional Morphology and Kinesiology 

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