Androgen and estrogen actions on male physical activity: a story beyond muscle

in Journal of Endocrinology
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  • 1 Clinical and Experimental Endocrinology, Department of Chronic Diseases, Metabolism and Ageing (CHROMETA), KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  • 2 Molecular Endocrinology Laboratory, Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  • 3 Gerontology and Geriatrics, Department of Chronic Diseases, Metabolism and Ageing (CHROMETA), KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

Physical inactivity is a pandemic that contributes to several chronic diseases and poses a significant burden on health care systems worldwide. The search for effective strategies to combat sedentary behavior has led to an intensification of the research efforts to unravel the biological substrate controlling activity. A wide body of preclinical evidence makes a strong case for sex steroids regulating physical activity in both genders, albeit the mechanisms implicated remain unclear. The beneficial effects of androgens on muscle as well as on other peripheral functions might play a role in favoring adaptation to exercise. Alternatively or in addition, sex steroids could act on specific brain circuitries to boost physical activity. This review critically discusses the evidence supporting a role for androgens and estrogens stimulating male physical activity, with special emphasis on the possible role of peripheral and/or central mechanisms. Finally, the potential translation of these findings to humans is briefly discussed.

Abstract

Physical inactivity is a pandemic that contributes to several chronic diseases and poses a significant burden on health care systems worldwide. The search for effective strategies to combat sedentary behavior has led to an intensification of the research efforts to unravel the biological substrate controlling activity. A wide body of preclinical evidence makes a strong case for sex steroids regulating physical activity in both genders, albeit the mechanisms implicated remain unclear. The beneficial effects of androgens on muscle as well as on other peripheral functions might play a role in favoring adaptation to exercise. Alternatively or in addition, sex steroids could act on specific brain circuitries to boost physical activity. This review critically discusses the evidence supporting a role for androgens and estrogens stimulating male physical activity, with special emphasis on the possible role of peripheral and/or central mechanisms. Finally, the potential translation of these findings to humans is briefly discussed.

Introduction

Physical inactivity has emerged as a global health crisis, being the fourth leading cause of death worldwide according to the World Health Organization (WHO) (WHO 2009). Not meeting the minimum physical activity recommendations (WHO 2010) is estimated to cause 6% of the burden of disease from coronary heart disease, 7% of type 2 diabetes and 10% of both breast and colon cancer (Lee et al. 2012). In contrast, 15 min of daily moderate-intensity exercise reduces all-cause mortality by 14% and extends by 3 years the life expectancy (Wen et al. 2011). Notwithstanding, one-third of adults worldwide are physically inactive and the prevalence increases dramatically among adolescents, with four out of five not reaching the minimum recommended levels according to self-reported measures (Hallal et al. 2012). Accelerometer data show even lower rates of adherence among adolescents, with only 8% of 12- to 15-year-old individuals attaining sufficient physical activity (Troiano et al. 2008). Taking into consideration the prevalence and risks associated with physical inactivity, as well as the fact that it can be easily and effectively prevented (Heath et al. 2012), it is without surprise that the promotion of physical activity has become a public health priority (Kohl et al. 2012).

The predisposition to engage in physical activity is a highly complex trait in humans, probably determined by the interaction of biological, psychological, social and environmental factors (Bauman et al. 2012). The role for a biological substrate influencing the levels of physical activity is a relatively recent concept supported by several lines of evidence, including human studies but mostly preclinical investigations (Bouchard & Rankinen 2006). Based on a cohort of 37,000 twin pairs, Stubble et al. described that the heritability of exercise participation ranged between 48% and 71% (Stubbe et al. 2006). Nevertheless, the extent to which genetic factors explain adult exercise behavior is highly heterogenic between studies, most likely due to differences in the methodology used to assess physical activity (Simonen et al. 2002, Eriksson et al. 2006). In addition, candidate gene studies have pointed out several hormonal- and neurotransmitter-related genes associated with physical activity (Stefan et al. 2002, Salmen et al. 2003, Simonen et al. 2003, Loos et al. 2005). However, the two genome-wide association studies (GWAS) published so far do not support a prominent role for most of these candidate genes (De Moor et al. 2009, Kim et al. 2014). This inconsistency might be explained in part by the limitations of physical activity data based on questionnaires or diaries, which show poor accuracy in detecting light-to-moderate activities and are prone to error because of individual biases (Strath et al. 2013). The latter caveat is overcome by recent efforts to implement the use of automated monitors in physical activity research. Nonetheless, the strongest body of evidence supporting that physical activity is biologically regulated still comes from preclinical studies.

Androgens and estrogens are key regulators of reproductive organs but also exert multiple effects on non-reproductive tissues, including brain, muscle, adipose tissue and bone. Testosterone, the principal circulating androgen, may stimulate the androgen receptor (AR) either directly, or indirectly following 5 alpha-reduction to dihydrotestosterone (DHT), as well as the estrogen receptors (ERα and ERβ) after testosterone aromatization into estradiol (E2) (Callewaert et al. 2010). Even though research into the biological control of physical activity has intensified in recent years, early findings in the 1920s already showed that wheel running in male rats was abolished after orchiectomy (ORX) (Gans 1927). Later studies pinpointed testosterone as the gonadal product stimulating wheel running, albeit the extent to which prior aromatization into E2 was required remained debated (see discussion in the ‘Replacement and pharmacological studies in adult rodents’ section). Physical activity is a sexually dimorphic trait in rodents (Eikelboom & Mills 1988), with females being more active than males and with fluctuations according to the estrous cycle (Wollnik & Turek 1988). Similar to what is observed in males, wheel running in females is abolished upon gonadectomy and can be restored following treatment with E2 (Berchtold et al. 2001). Based on these and other preclinical data, sex steroids have been suggested as strong candidates for contributing to the biological substrate influencing physical activity (Lightfoot 2008). Androgens are well known for their potent anabolic actions on muscle and we have previously reviewed the cellular targets and molecular pathways implicated (Dubois et al. 2012). Therefore, it is conceivable that testosterone increases activity in males by favoring adaptation to exercise (peripheral mechanisms). In addition or alternatively thereto, testosterone could act on the specific brain neural circuitries that have been identified to control physical activity levels (central mechanisms). Our understanding of the neural basis underpinning the effects of sex steroids on activity has advanced markedly over the last decade. Nevertheless, most of these studies have focused on the female brain (reviewed in Xu et al. 2017), whilst the central mechanisms implicated in male activity are less documented.

The recent publication of large clinical trials of testosterone therapy in elderly men has reignited the debate on the risks and benefits of testosterone replacement (Basaria et al. 2010, Snyder et al. 2016, Storer et al. 2016). In this context, the positive impact of testosterone stimulating physical activity and the underlying mechanisms of action represent an additional consideration for testosterone replacement in elderly, mobility-impaired, frail or sarcopenic men. Here, we review the data supporting a role for androgens and estrogens regulating male physical activity and provide an overview of the potential mechanisms implicated. How sex steroids control physical activity in females is reviewed in Lightfoot (2008) and Xu et al. (2017). We will first review some basic concepts regarding physical activity and then discuss several lines of preclinical evidence supporting the notion. In the following sections, we will review the impact of androgens in the physical ability to partake in exercise and examine the specific brain circuits that could be underlying the regulation of activity by testosterone. In the last section, we will briefly discuss what is known regarding the effects of androgens and estrogens on physical activity in men.

Categories of physical activity

Physical activity is defined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure (Caspersen et al. 1985). Although the term ‘exercise’ is often interchanged with physical activity, exercise is indeed a subset of physical activity that is planned and structured and implies a purpose to achieve health or fitness benefits (Caspersen et al. 1985). In our daily life, we also engage in incidental physical activity when performing home- or work-related activities or during transportation (Strath et al. 2013). Nevertheless, the latter activities can be performed in an exercise manner and thus it is not always straightforward to discern between the voluntary (planned) and incidental (spontaneous) domains of physical activity (Garland et al. 2011). Notably, an increase in energy expenditure associated with non-exercise activity has been shown to prevent fat gain in humans (Levine 1999). Therefore, physical activity derived from daily tasks may also play a role in disease prevention and should be included together with exercise when assessing physical activity.

With regard to preclinical animal studies, wheel running in rodents has been extensively used as a model of human exercise (Garland et al. 2011, Novak et al. 2012). Similar to the ‘runner’s high’ experienced during endurance exercise in humans, wheel running is rewarding for rodents and both rats and mice show preference for environments previously associated with running (Lett et al. 2001, Fernandes et al. 2015). When given free access to running wheels, mice reduce the time spent in cage floor activity at the expense of wheel running time, the net result being an increase in their total activity levels (De Visser et al. 2005, Silvennoinen et al. 2014). Spontaneous physical activity (SPA) refers to the non-exercise component of activity and therefore should not be used as interchangeable for wheel running, although very often these two parameters correlate reasonably well. There are several methods to assess SPA in rodents, including infrared photobeams, radiotelemetry, video tracking systems or force plates (Silvennoinen et al. 2014, Teske et al. 2014, Chabert et al. 2016). The main difference between these approaches is their accuracy in detecting ambulation and climbing as well as more subtle stationary movements, such as grooming or feeding. Regardless of the method used, a long (i.e., hours) period of acclimatization to the activity chamber is required to discharge the novelty effects on locomotion (Teske et al. 2014). Studies failing to meet the former methodological requirement were excluded from this review. It is important to note that we focus here on volitional activity, and therefore do not include preclinical studies using forced exercise capacity tests. Forced treadmill running or swimming require the use of aversive stimuli to motivate the animals, thus inducing a substantial psychological stress (Sasaki et al. 2016). In addition, rodents do not always display consistent swimming behaviors and some animals will just float, bob and/or dive (American Physiological Association 2007). Therefore, we focused on voluntary wheel running, in which animals have a complete control on the amount and intensity of exercise.

Preclinical evidence supporting a role for androgens and estrogens regulating male physical activity

Most of our knowledge regarding the role of biological factors controlling physical activity derives from rodent studies and thus the overall significance to human health remains to be determined. Nevertheless, evidence from preclinical studies in rats and mice clearly shows the importance of androgens and normal AR and ERα signaling in the regulation of male activity.

Replacement and pharmacological studies in adult rodents

The first observations showing that ORX abrogates wheel running activity in rats date from almost a century ago (Gans 1927). Subsequent studies extended these findings to mice as well as other rodent species (Daan et al. 1975, Morin & Cummings 1981, Dark & Zucker 1984, Jechura et al. 2000) and demonstrated the implication of testicular testosterone production (Daan et al. 1975, Roy & Wade 1975). It is now well established that replacement with testosterone rescues wheel running activity in a gradual dose-response manner following ORX (Butler et al. 2012). For instance, the average daily distance run by ORX mice increases from 1 to almost 4 km following 2 weeks of treatment with physiological doses of testosterone (Jardí et al. 2018). Consequently, the combination of testosterone and wheel running mediates an adaptational shift to a more oxidative fiber profile in the skeletal muscle of ORX (Allen et al. 2001, Ibebunjo et al. 2011). In gonadally intact male rats, administration of supraphysiological doses of testosterone also increases running distances (McGinnis et al. 2007). Similar to humans, aging in male mice is associated with a progressive decline in activity (Fig. 1; Hamrick et al. 2006) and this can be partly attenuated by the combination of exogenous testosterone and low-intensity physical training (Guo et al. 2012). It is important to note, however, that the concentrations of testosterone in male mice appear to remain constant with aging (Hamrick et al. 2006), in contrast to what is observed in elderly men (Wu et al. 2008). Thus, it is unlikely that a reduced androgen bioactivity is the main driver of the decreased SPA in old mice, even when this is responsive to testosterone supplementation in the setting of physical training.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Changes in SPA with age in male C57BL/6 mice. Mean values are shown with standard error means as vertical bars. (Data from Hamrick et al. 2006.)

Citation: Journal of Endocrinology 238, 1; 10.1530/JOE-18-0125

Many of the actions of testosterone in male behavior are mediated by estrogen receptors (ERs). For instance, testosterone acts predominantly as a prohormone for E2 in the programming of male-typical and territorial behavior in mice, although execution of this behavior relies on the AR (Wu et al. 2009). It remains debated whether this dual androgenic and estrogenic action of testosterone also applies to physical activity. Initially, testosterone was suggested to stimulate wheel running exclusively through aromatase-dependent mechanisms (Stern & Murphy 1971, Roy & Wade 1975). Treatment with E2 was more effective than testosterone in stimulating wheel running in ORX rats and the non-aromatizable androgen DHT showed no effects (Roy & Wade 1975). Also in ORX rats, biologically effective doses of the antiandrogen cyproterone acetate failed to inhibit the stimulatory actions of testosterone on wheel running (Stern & Murphy 1971). In accordance, treatment with the 5α-reductase inhibitor dutasteride did not alter the levels of wheel running in male Zucker obese rats (Sato et al. 2013). In the latter study, however, the lack of effects could be potentially explained by the already low levels of wheel running of these animals (Stern & Johnson 1977) and/or by a compensatory effect related to the secondary increases in testosterone concentrations (Amory et al. 2007). Later studies challenged the notion of aromatase being indispensable for testosterone effects on wheel running. In male mice, treatment with DHT partly restored the drop in wheel running following ORX (Karatsoreos et al. 2007, Iwahana et al. 2008), although to a lesser extent compared with testosterone (2.3 km vs. 3.8 km; Jardí et al. 2018) and both testosterone and DHT were equally effective restoring SPA (Jardí et al. 2018). It is noteworthy that DHT metabolites 5α-androstane-3α, 17β-diol (3α-diol) and 5α-androstane-3β, 17β-diol (3β -diol) may initiate behavioral processes through AR-independent mechanisms, namely by acting on gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) type A (Frye et al. 1996) or ERs (Frye et al. 2008a). Nevertheless, we showed that DHT failed to rescue wheel running in AR knockout (ARKO) mice, ruling out the implication of AR-independent mechanisms (Jardí et al. 2018). Additionally, the activity of ORX+testosterone-treated mice was partially lowered by the AR antagonist enzalutamide (Wu et al. 2016), further supporting the involvement of AR signaling in the stimulation of wheel running (Jardí et al. 2018). Taken together, these data make a strong case for the contribution of AR to the effects of androgens on activity, at least in male mice, though its importance is somewhat less compared to aromatization and ER signaling.

In an attempt to investigate the estrogenic component of testosterone actions, ORX rats and mice have been treated with systemic E2 (Roy & Wade 1975, Ogawa et al. 2003, Bowen et al. 2011, 2012, Blattner & Mahoney 2015, Royston et al. 2016). It should be noted, however, that the physiological relevance of this approach is uncertain and deserves special consideration. Serum E2 concentrations in both gonadally intact and ORX+testosterone-, but not E2-treated mice, are below the limit of detection of sensitive analysis methods using mass spectrometry (McNamara et al. 2010, Nilsson et al. 2015, Laurent et al. 2016b), the ‘gold standard’ for sex steroids measurements. Circulating levels of E2 are also extremely low in male rats, at the level of a few picograms per milliliter (Quignot et al. 2012). Therefore, a ‘physiological’ E2 dose is virtually impossible to define in male rodents, and most ‘replacement’ doses are almost by definition supraphysiological. Remarkably, aromatase is highly expressed in several brain regions of male rodents, including the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, the olfactory tubercle, the medial amygdala (MeA) and the hypothalamus, suggesting a role for the autocrine and paracrine actions of estrogens (Zhao et al. 2007, Stanić et al. 2014). Overall, we cannot draw conclusions about the physiological role of E2 on physical activity levels based on studies treating male rodents with systemic E2, even when pharmacological doses of E2 restore wheel running following ORX (Roy & Wade 1975, Ogawa et al. 2003, Bowen et al. 2011, 2012, Blattner & Mahoney 2015, Royston et al. 2016). Although treatment with the aromatase inhibitors letrozole and exemestane did not affect wheel running either in gonadally intact or ORX+testosterone-treated mice (Bowen et al. 2011), this study needs further technical validations. The ultimate proof of the role of ERs on male physical activity comes from studies in knockout mice lacking ERα or the aromatase enzyme (see discussion in the ‘Global KO mouse models’ section).

Androgenic-anabolic steroids (AAS) and selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMS)

AAS are synthetic derivatives of testosterone that were developed in an attempt to maximize the anabolic activity of testosterone. The prolonged abuse of AAS in men is related to several psychiatric adverse effects, including irritability, mood swings, mania (‘steroid rage’ at supraphysiological doses) and depression (Pope & Katz 1994, Bjørnebekk et al. 2017). Although scarce, a few preclinical studies have explored whether doses of AAS that model human abuse patterns affect physical activity levels. In contrast to testosterone, both nandrolone (McGinnis et al. 2007, Tanehkar et al. 2013) and stanozolol (McGinnis et al. 2007) reduced wheel running activity in gonadally intact male rats. Similarly, the combination of nandrolone and methandrostenolone decreased voluntary wheel running in mice (Onakomaiya et al. 2014). Paradoxically, despite the detrimental effects of nandrolone on wheel running in male rats (McGinnis et al. 2007, Tanehkar et al. 2013), the combination of both interventions improved their running endurance (Vanzyl et al. 1995). As for the mechanisms of action, AAS and endogenous testosterone differ in both the affinity to bind AR and the ability to be aromatized (Bergink et al. 1985, Fragkaki et al. 2009). Possibly, AAS regimes reduce wheel running by interfering with the endogenous testosterone production and hence E2 (Barone et al. 2017). Alternatively, AAS might act directly on several neurotransmitter systems in the brain that affect physical activity (Mhillaj et al. 2015).

The need to improve both the benefit/risk profile and pharmacokinetics of androgens spurred the development of selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs) (Mohler et al. 2009). SARMs received initially a great deal of clinical attention for their potential use in the treatment of muscle wasting conditions. To date, yet, none of these compounds has shown unequivocal efficacy in clinical trials (Almeida et al. 2017). Preclinical data show that SARMs display a better myotrophic index compared to their steroidal analogues. In ORX mice, treatment with the SARM MK-4541 led to an increase in muscle mass and function comparable to DHT but without the sparing effects on seminal vesicles (Chisamore et al. 2016). The reduction of SPA following ORX, however, was only partially rescued by MK-4541 (Chisamore et al. 2016). In a similar pattern, treatment with SARM-2f completely restored muscle mass in ORX mice but was less effective increasing their wheel running activity (Morimoto et al. 2018). In a preclinical mouse model of muscular dystrophy, an enobosarm analog extended the survival of mice but failed to increase their low SPA (Ponnusamy et al. 2017). Nevertheless, the severity of the pathology of these mice may have impeded an increase in their SPA levels. The effects of SARMs on physical activity are worthy of further study and could represent an additional benefit in the treatment of muscle wasting conditions.

Perinatal studies

So far, we discussed how androgens stimulate physical activity in adult rodents. It is noteworthy that behavioral responses to sex steroids during adulthood are influenced by sex steroids acting on the nervous system during early critical periods. In their seminal work in 1959, Phoenix et al. were the first to dichotomize hormonal effects in two groups: organizational vs. activational (Phoenix et al. 1959). The organizational-activational theory states that hormones sculpt neural tissues during development so that they respond differentially to hormonal activation in adulthood (Phoenix et al. 1959). The study of the organizational effects of sex steroids has mainly focused on the programming of mating behavior (Arnold 2009). Although less evidence is available for non-sexual behavior, the results from several preclinical studies suggest that the perinatal sex steroid milieu might also determine physical activity in adulthood.

The perinatal surges of testosterone in male rodents during the late embryogenic period and the first hours of life are critical for the male brain to become capable of producing male sexual behavior (masculinization) whilst losing its ability to respond in a female-like pattern (defeminization; Lenz & McCarthy 2010 for review on this topic). Apart from the perinatal period, a growing body of evidence shows that during puberty, testosterone is also required for the full masculinization and defeminization of male brain (Schulz et al. 2004, De Lorme & Sisk 2016, Sano et al. 2016). Paradoxically, the organizational effects of testosterone on the developing male brain are actually driven by ERs, suggesting the implication of brain aromatase activity (Ogawa et al. 2000, Wu et al. 2009, Juntti et al. 2010). In females, prepubertal estrogen levels are very low, and the traditional dogma states that sexual behavior is merely the result of the absence of perinatal testosterone organizational actions. Recent data challenge the latter hypothesis demonstrating that E2 actions outside the perinatal period are required for the normal development of female sexual behavior (Brock et al. 2011). The neural substrate underlying the persistent and irreversible effects of sex steroid actions on the developing brain remains mostly unknown. Although not an exhaustive list, some suggested mechanisms include epigenetic modulation (Nugent et al. 2015), regulation of cell death and proliferation (Wu et al. 2009) and changes in synaptic patterning (Schwarz et al. 2008).

Activity is a sexually dimorphic behavior in rodents, with females showing higher levels of wheel running and SPA compared to males (Eikelboom & Mills 1988). Gender differences in activity remain after gonadectomy and thus cannot be explained by hormonal dimorphism in adulthood (Gentry & Wade 1976, Blizard 1983, Broida & Svare 1984, Bowen et al. 2012, Kuljis et al. 2013). Differences in sex chromosomes as such are also insufficient to explain the dimorphism in activity, as evidenced by studies using the mouse model of 4 core genotypes, in which sex chromosome complement is independent of gonadal phenotype (De Vries et al. 2002, Kuljis et al. 2013). In a similar pattern to XX females, ovariectomy of mice with a deletion of the testis-determining gene Sry results in running longer distances than ORX males (Kuljis et al. 2013).

Accumulating literature suggests a role for sex steroid actions during the perinatal period determining gender differences in activity. ORX at postnatal day 0 (P0) results in higher levels of SPA than that at P5, 10 or 25 in male mice (Broida & Svare 1984). Also in male mice, estrogen deficiency during early life leads to a higher wheel running response in adulthood following E2 treatment (Royston et al. 2016). From these observations, it is reasonable to assume that the neonatal testosterone surge programs male physical activity and that this might involve aromatase-dependent processes (Fig. 2). In support of this premise, female rats treated neonatally with androgens develop a resistance to E2 stimulation of wheel running in adulthood, which can be prevented by treating pups with antisense oligodeoxynucleotides to ER mRNA (Blizard 1983, McCarthy et al. 1993, Royston et al. 2016). Whether the neural mechanisms underlying the organizational effects of testosterone on activity are similar to those described for mating behavior remains to be investigated. Similarly, the organizational effects of testosterone outside the perinatal window on physical activity (i.e. puberty) await confirmation.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Schematic overview of the overall proposed mechanisms of action of testosterone on male activity (see text). A, androgens; CNS, central nervous system; E2, estradiol; PNS, peripheral nervous system; +, stimulatory effect; ++, dominant stimulatory effect.

Citation: Journal of Endocrinology 238, 1; 10.1530/JOE-18-0125

Global KO mouse models

Studies in transgenic mice lacking either steroid hormone receptors or the aromatase enzyme provide further insights into the role of sex steroids regulating physical activity. However, the interpretation of the results obtained from these mouse models is hampered by alterations of the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal (HPG) axis. In addition, it is reasonable to expect changes in the sex-steroid-dependent brain organization (see previous section) caused by the gene deletion during development.

Androgen receptor knockout (ARKO) mice

Several ARKO mouse models targeting either exon 1, 2 or 3 have been generated using the Cre-LoxP system (Fan et al. 2005, Ophoff et al. 2009a, Rana et al. 2011). Our group reported an almost complete abrogation of wheel running as well as a reduced SPA in exon 2-deleted male ARKO mice (Ophoff et al. 2009a). A similar low activity phenotype was observed in mice with a targeted disruption of AR exon 1 (Fan et al. 2005) and in a DNA-binding domain ARKO mouse model that only retains non-genomic actions (Rana et al. 2011). The fact that global ARKO mice are less physically active might predispose them to develop late-onset adiposity (Fan et al. 2005, Rana et al. 2011). Global ARKO mice appear to suffer from an impaired gonadal testosterone production (Callewaert et al. 2009) and might therefore not be useful to discern between purely AR-mediated effects and those secondary to E2 deficiency. Indeed, treatment with testosterone completely restored wheel running in male ARKO mice, an effect associated with a normalization of their E2 concentrations in brain (Jardí et al. 2018). Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the low activity phenotype of ARKO mice is derived in large part from a lack of testosterone substrate for aromatization into E2.

Aromatase knockout mice

Mice in which E2 biosynthesis is disrupted by deletion of the Cyp19a1 gene represent a useful tool to study the implication of E2 in the regulation of male physiological processes (Cooke et al. 2017). Most studies in male aromatase KO mice agree that both wheel running (Watai et al. 2007, Brockman et al. 2011) and SPA (Hill et al. 2007) are diminished in the absence of E2. Nevertheless, one study reported increased levels of wheel running in male aromatase KO mice, as part of a broader spectrum of compulsive behaviors (Hill et al. 2007). It should be noted that the authors analyzed pre-plateau phases of activity, which could have led to a mistaken estimation of the ‘true’ levels of wheel running. Be that as it may, aromatase KO mice also show an impaired negative feedback of the HPG axis, with higher levels of serum testosterone and gonadotropins (Fisher et al. 1998, Jones et al. 2000, Öz et al. 2000). The fact that aromatase KO mice display a low activity phenotype even in the presence of excess testosterone indicates a crucial role for aromatization in the testosterone-induced stimulation of male physical activity. Supporting this notion, male aromatase KO mice do not show an ORX-induced reduction of wheel running (Brockman et al. 2011).

Estrogen receptor α (ERα-) and β knockout (ERβKO) mice

The generation of ERα and ERβKO mice has advanced our understanding of the mechanisms implicated in the estrogenic regulation of male physiology (Cooke et al. 2017). Similar to male aromatase KO mice, ERαKO mice show increased levels of serum testosterone (Callewaert et al. 2009), are less active than their wild-type (WT) littermates when given access to running wheels (Blattner & Mahoney 2012), and develop elevated adiposity in late-life (Heine et al. 2000). As shown first in the seminal work of Ogawa et al. and later confirmed by others, the stimulatory actions of E2 treatment on wheel running activity are abrogated in ERαKO mice (Ogawa et al. 2003, Dworatzek et al. 2014, Blattner & Mahoney 2015). This is not the case for ERβKO mice in which the response to E2 is unaffected (Ogawa et al. 2003). Therefore, the estrogenic regulation of wheel running in males is primarily mediated by ERα, though this does not exclude the possibility that ERβ plays a role in modulating the circadian-rhythm patterns of activity, as shown for females (Royston et al. 2014).

‘Non-classical’ ER knock-in (NERKI) mice

Transgenic mice with a knock-in mutation in the ERα selectively abolishing estrogen response element (ERE) binding were originally generated to distinguish between classical and non-classical ERα actions in vivo (Jakacka et al. 2002). Male ‘non-classical’ ER knock-in mice (NERKI) mice show a reduced wheel running activity that does not increase following challenge with E2 (Blattner & Mahoney 2012, 2015). Based on these observations, it is tempting to speculate that ERα actions on wheel running activity are dependent on ERα binding to ERE elements.

G-protein-coupled receptor 30 knockout (GPR30KO) mice

The G-protein-coupled receptor 30 (GPR30) has been proposed as a membrane ER (Langer et al. 2010). There are important phenotypic differences between the four independent GPR30KO mouse models available, most likely reflecting that other factors apart from deletion of GPR30 are contributing to the observed effects (Langer et al. 2010). In two different GPR30KO mouse models, males exhibited normal SPA levels (Sharma et al. 2013, Kastenberger & Schwarzer 2014), but another study reported that GPR30KO male mice displayed a mild reduction in wheel running as well as an impaired left-ventricular cardiac function (Delbeck et al. 2011). It therefore remains uncertain whether GPR30 is physiologically relevant for physical activity, and if so, if it contributes to E2-induced responses and/or initiates independent mechanisms.

Sex-hormone-binding globulin transgenic (SHBG-tg) mice

Sex-hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) is a high-affinity binding protein for testosterone, DHT and E2 that is found circulating in humans but is almost completely lacking in rodent serum. We recently showed in a humanized mouse model expressing human SHBG that testosterone needs to be biologically available (i.e. not bound to SHBG) to produce its stimulatory effects on wheel running (Jänne et al. 1998, Jardí et al. 2018). In SHBG-tg mice, the majority of testosterone is bound by SHBG and cannot enter target tissues by the canonical way (Laurent et al. 2016a,b). Male SHBG-tg mice display features of a mild androgen deficiency phenotype, including a 50% decrease in wheel running activity (Jardí et al. 2018). As the decline of androgen bioactivity in elderly men is also only mild (Wu et al. 2008), SHBG-tg mice may be a more suitable animal model to study late-onset hypogonadism than ORX.

The interpretation of studies using constitutive KO mice for steroid hormone receptors or the aromatase enzyme is subject to several limitations, including alterations of the HPG axis, developmental compensatory mechanisms and the impossibility to distinguish tissue-specific contributions. Nonetheless, findings in both aromatase and ERKO mice indicate that testosterone actions on physical activity require normal aromatase and ERα functions. In contrast, we cannot draw conclusions about the implication of AR from studies in global ARKO mice because of their severe hypogonadism. However, replacement and pharmacological studies made clear that the contribution of AR to testosterone effects cannot be dismissed as minimal or trivial (see discussion in the ‘Replacement and pharmacological studies in adult rodents’ section).

Mechanisms implicated in the effects of androgens and estrogens on male physical activity

Despite the large amount of preclinical data showing that androgens and estrogens control physical activity in males, the mechanisms involved are not well understood. Due to their pleiotropic nature, sex steroids could stimulate physical activity by acting on multiple organs or systems. Of particular interest, the use of genetic techniques to manipulate neuronal pools in a selective manner has allowed the identification of several sex-steroid-responsive neural circuitries implicated in the drive to engage in physical activity (Musatov et al. 2007, Xu et al. 2011, 2015, Correa et al. 2015). Besides these central mechanisms, androgens could also increase activity levels by improving muscle function (Dubois et al. 2012) and, in turn, the capacity to exercise. In other words, testosterone might influence both the motivation and/or the ability to partake in activity, referred here as central and peripheral actions, respectively (Fig. 2). Note that the term ‘peripheral’ as applied to this classification does not preclude the implication of the central nervous system (CNS) in the observed effects.

Peripheral actions

In the next section, we will examine whether androgens provide greater tolerance to exercise by improving muscle strength, motor skills, metabolism and/or other peripheral parameters in male rodents.

Muscle mass and strength

Both the mass and the ex vivo contractility of hindlimb muscles show a mild reduction following ORX or AR deletion in male mice (Axell et al. 2006, MacLean et al. 2008, De Naeyer et al. 2014, Dubois et al. 2014). The differences in strength disappear when normalized for muscle weight, suggesting that the intrinsic contractile properties of muscle remain unaltered (Axell et al. 2006, MacLean et al. 2008, Hourdé et al. 2009, De Naeyer et al. 2014). However, in five different myoblast or satellite-cell-specific ARKO models, the mass and contractility of hindlimb muscles were not, or marginally, affected (Ophoff et al. 2009b, Chambon et al. 2010, Dubois et al. 2014, Ferry et al. 2014, Rana et al. 2016), whilst all five models showed a partial decrease in the weight of the androgen-sensitive perineal muscles. Nevertheless, the expression of AR in the muscle cell lineage was required for the full gain in muscle mass induced by mechanical loading (Ferry et al. 2014), an effect that could be related to the modulation of a reserve pool of adult muscle stem cells by androgens (Kim et al. 2016). An overview of the main features of the different muscle-specific ARKO models is presented in Table 1. Overall, the former studies suggest a role for non-myocytic AR mediating the modest actions of androgens on murine muscle. In this regard, a recent study points toward neuronal AR contributing to maintain hindlimb muscle mass but not contractility in male mice (Davey et al. 2017). The cellular targets underlying the anabolic actions of androgens on muscle have been reviewed by Dubois et al. (2012).

Table 1

Overview of muscle- and neuronal-specific ARKO mouse models.

Cell typeMouse strainRefSerum testosterone/SV weightMuscle massGrip strengthContractile functionMotor performanceWheel runningSPA
MyofibersARskm;HSACre(a,b)Rana et al. (2016)=NDNDND=ND
ARskm;MCKCre(a)Rana et al. (2016)=NDNDND=ND
ARskm;HSACreChambon et al. (2010)ND=NDNDND
ARskm;HSACreERChambon et al. (2010)ND=NDNDNDND
ARskm;MCKCreOphoff et al. (2009b)=cND(=)=dNDND
ARsat+skm;MyoDDubois et al. (2014, 2015), Jardí et al. (2018)=c=(=)=d=ND
NeuronsARNeu+glia;NesCreRaskin et al. (2009)=eNDNDNDND(↑)
ARNeu+glia;NesCreJuntti et al. (2010)((↑))NDNDND=fNDND
ARNeu;SynapsinICreYu et al. (2013)cNDNDNDNDNDND
ARNeu;CamKIIαCreDavey et al. (2017)ND=ND
ARNeu;Thy1CreER(g)Jardí et al. (2017b)c==NDND=ND

aAR lox hemizygous mice show a phenotype of hyperandrogenization; bAR expression also reduced in brain and fat; cas assessed by SV weight; dtreadmill running; edetermined by DXA; frotarod test; gAR expression retained in the hypothalamus.

↑, increased; (↑), SPA restored to control values following normalization of testosterone levels; ((↑)), not statistically significant; ↓, decreased; =, unchanged; (=), minor impact on fatigue but no changes in maximal muscle tension; ND, not determined; neu, neurons; sat, satellite cells; skm, skeletal muscle myofibers; SPA, spontaneous physical activity; SV, seminal vesicles; testosterone, testosterone.

The ex vivo contractility studies referred to in the earlier sections do not support a role for an intrinsic muscle dysfunction impairing the physical ability of ORX and ARKO mice. Yet, these findings do not exclude the possibility that androgens regulate the neuromuscular function in vivo. Exercise training potentiates the stimulatory effects of androgens on muscle mass and strength (Guo et al. 2012, Cozzoli et al. 2013). Indeed, the combination of both interventions benefits endurance capacity in rodents (Vanzyl et al. 1995, Georgieva & Boyadjiev 2004, Cozzoli et al. 2013), presumably through increasing muscle function. However, ORX per se diminishes grip strength by only about 5–15% in some but not all studies (Borst et al. 2007, Windahl et al. 2011, White et al. 2013, Chisamore et al. 2016). The discrepancies between studies might be due to the lack of sensitivity of the conventional forelimb grip strength test (Takeshita et al. 2017). Additionally, the motivation to hold onto the grid may vary between mice, causing inconsistencies in the results. Be that as it may, a modest reduction (~10%) in grip strength was also found in two muscle-specific ARKO mouse models (Chambon et al. 2010, Dubois et al. 2014) (Table 1). However, this did not impede muscle-specific ARKO mice from displaying similar performances to their WT littermates in both the voluntary wheel running and the forced treadmill tests (Table 1). Overall, we conclude that it is unlikely that the mild loss of muscle function following androgen deficiency in male mice is the main driver of their low activity phenotype.

Motor skills

Preclinical data show that testosterone deficiency exerts detrimental effects on male CNS health (Khasnavis et al. 2013, Jayaraman et al. 2014, Atallah et al. 2017). In mice, prepubertal ORX led to a poor performance in the rotarod test, which the authors associated with a loss of midbrain dopaminergic neurons (Khasnavis et al. 2013). Conversely, also in the rotarod test, male testicular-feminized (Tfm) mice expressing a non-functional AR performed better than their WT littermates (Rizk et al. 2005). Although this might seem unexpected at first, the increased rotarod performance of Tfm mice could be due to their lower body weight, since these two variables share an inverse correlation (Mao et al. 2015). Confirming the latter results, male ARKO mice showed normal motor skills despite their loss in striatal dopamine concentrations, a fact that might be explained by compensatory adaptations during ontogeny (Jardí et al. 2018). In contrast to prepubertal castration, ORX adult rodents showed an altered performance in neither the rotarod test nor a nigrostriatal pathology (Kritzer et al. 2001, Frye et al. 2008b, Khasnavis et al. 2013). In the beam-walking test, which detects more subtle motor coordination deficits, one study showed that ORX mice performed worse than sham-operated controls (McDermott et al. 1994). However, the performance in the latter test is in part influenced by motivational factors (McDermott et al. 1994, Curzon et al. 2009, Deacon 2013).

Regarding peripheral nerve health, both ORX and treatment with the antiandrogen flutamide reduced the synthesis of myelin proteins in the sciatic nerve of male rodents (Magnaghi et al. 1999, 2004, Jayaraman et al. 2014). In male mice, the decrease in myelin sheath was associated with macrophage infiltration (Jayaraman et al. 2014). Also in male mice, however, nerve function as assessed by sciatic nerve conductance studies was not altered following either ORX or ARKO (Jardí et al. 2018).

Taken together, we conclude that the adverse actions of androgen deficiency on male neural health do not seem to translate into a deterioration of motor performance that would limit physical activity, at least in adult rodents. This does not preclude a role for androgens improving motor functional recovery in animal models of neural disease (Uchida et al. 2009, Yoo & Ko 2012, Ponnusamy et al. 2017).

Other peripheral actions

Skeletal muscle metabolism is critical to maintain fuel homeostasis during exercise. In both male rats and mice, androgen deficiency decreases muscle glycogen stores (Ramamani et al. 1999, Dubois et al. 2016), a suggested risk factor for fatigue development (Xirouchaki et al. 2016). Conversely, testosterone promotes glucose uptake in skeletal muscle, although it is not clear to what extent these effects are dependent on local AR actions (Sato et al. 2008, Ibebunjo et al. 2011, Dubois et al. 2016, Kelly et al. 2016). In male mice, deletion of myogenic AR did not affect either muscle glycogen stores (Ophoff et al. 2009b) or glucose tolerance (Dubois et al. 2016), in contrast to that observed in both liver- (Lin et al. 2008) and adipose-tissue-specific ARKO mice (McInnes et al. 2012). The mechanisms by which testosterone acts on metabolic pathways have been reviewed elsewhere (Kelly & Jones 2013). Besides metabolism, long-term ORX might affect exercise capacity in rodents by attenuating cardiac contractility, as suggested by both in vivo echocardiographic and ex vivo studies (Sebag et al. 2011, Eleawa et al. 2013). These alterations in cardiac contractile function could arise from testosterone modulating Ca2+ handling in ventricular myocytes, as recently reviewed (Ayaz & Howlett 2015). Additionally, androgens might influence adaptation to exercise by affecting hemoglobin and hematocrit levels (Bhasin et al. 2012), bone (Vanderschueren et al. 2014) and/or lung function (Townsend et al. 2012). However, overall, the actions of androgens on these parameters or on muscle do not appear to play an indispensable role in maintaining the capacity of male rodents for endurance activities. In contrast to what is observed in the voluntary wheel running test, both ARKO mice and ORX rats perform as well as control animals when forced to run in a treadmill (Ophoff et al. 2009a, Petroianu et al. 2010). Therefore, we conclude that androgens must act through other mechanisms beyond muscle to stimulate physical activity. Nevertheless, it is still possible that the increase in activity over time potentiates the peripheral actions of androgens so that they acquire a greater importance in sustaining activity (Fig. 2).

Central actions

In the next section, we will review the available findings supporting the notion that testosterone is mainly acting centrally to boost physical activity in male rodents.

Central-nervous-system-specific KOs

In the mouse brain, AR and ERα display a moderate-to-high regionalized expression profile, both showing a high expression in the hypothalamus and brainstem, whilst AR levels are also abundant in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex (Gofflot et al. 2007, Lein et al. 2007, Mahfouz et al. 2016). Four different whole brain ARKO mouse models have been generated so far, allowing to explore the impact of AR signaling in the nervous tissue without interfering with its peripheral functions (Raskin et al. 2009, Juntti et al. 2010, Yu et al. 2013, Davey et al. 2017). An overview of the main features of the different neuronal ARKO models is presented in Table 1. All four models show an intact peripheral masculinization but unfortunately have an impaired negative feedback of the HPG axis in males, resulting in higher serum levels of testosterone and increased seminal vesicle weights (Raskin et al. 2009, Juntti et al. 2010, Yu et al. 2013, Davey et al. 2017). It is nevertheless clear that the neuronal AR is required for the full expression of both male-typical sexual and aggressive behaviors (Raskin et al. 2009, Juntti et al. 2010, Marie-Luce et al. 2013). Regarding physical activity, one study reported an increase in SPA in Nestin-Cre neuronal ARKO mice, although levels were restored to control values following normalization of testosterone levels, pointing to an implication of the altered HPG axis in the observed effects (Raskin et al. 2009). Contrarily, both SPA and wheel running were reduced by 60% in CamKII-Cre neuronal ARKO mice, which retains only non-DNA-binding-dependent AR actions (Davey et al. 2017). The latter results support the interpretation that AR exerts a predominant role in the regulation of male physical activity by testosterone. Nonetheless, the above-mentioned studies did not include littermates carrying the Cre transgene as controls. This is particularly important since Cre-driven transgenes might exert independent effects on behavioral outcomes (Harno et al. 2013, Chen et al. 2016). There is also the possibility that brain AR deletion at early stages may have indirectly interfered with the organizational actions of testosterone by altering the HPG axis. To circumvent this caveat, we recently generated a tamoxifen-inducible neuronal ARKO mouse model by using the Thy1-CreER, which drives gene deletion in extrahypothalamic regions of the brain (Jardí et al. 2017a). In contrast to CamKII-Cre neuronal ARKO mice, deletion of AR in the CNS of pubertal male Thy1-CreER neuronal ARKO mice did not affect wheel running (Jardí et al. 2017b). The differences between studies could be attributed to the residual expression of hypothalamic AR in our mice (Jardí et al. 2017a). All in all, the study of neuronal ARKO mice has not provided clear answers so far regarding the role of brain androgenic signaling in male physical activity. To the best of our knowledge, only one study reported a whole-brain ERαKO in male mice, but the authors did not assess physical activity in these animals (Xu et al. 2011).

Hypothalamic circuitries

The hypothalamus is a key brain region that integrates nutritional, hormonal and neural information to orchestrate adaptive physiological responses aimed to maintain the whole-body energy balance (Lenard & Berthoud 2008, Schneeberger et al. 2014). Technical advances in viral-vector-mediated gene manipulation as well as in opto- and chemogenetics have allowed the identification of hypothalamic circuitries implicated in the control of energy homeostasis by sex steroids. In particular, hypothalamic ERα signaling in female rodents has been shown to exert a holistic control of their overall energy balance, influencing food intake as well as energy expenditure (Xu et al. 2017 for review on this topic). Silencing of ERα in the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (VMH) by small hairpin RNA knockdown led to obesity in both female rats and mice, an effect associated with a decline in physical activity and thermogenesis (Musatov et al. 2007). Remarkably, the effects of estrogens on these two parameters of energy expenditure seem to be driven by independent ERα modules of the VMH (Xu et al. 2011, Correa et al. 2015). In male mice, global deletion of either AR or ERα results in a decreased energy expenditure that might predispose them to increased adiposity (Heine et al. 2000, Fan et al. 2005). It is not clear whether androgens, similar to estrogens in females, regulate male energy expenditure by acting on AR and/or ER-positive hypothalamic neurons. Hypothalamic testosterone implants restored wheel running activity in ORX mice (Model et al. 2015). However, since testosterone can diffuse to adjacent brain areas, these might also be implicated in the observed effects. According to unpublished data of Ogawa et al. (Sano et al. 2013), site-specific ERα knockdown in the VMH completely abolished estrogen-induced facilitation of wheel running in male mice, similar to that described in females (Fig. 3). Notwithstanding the aforementioned limitation of treating male mice with estrogens, these results suggest that the VMH forms part of the neural circuitries mediating testosterone-induced wheel running in male mice and highlights the implication of local aromatization in this brain region (Roselli et al. 1985). In contrast to females, however, the regulation of male physical activity by ERα expression in the VMH may involve a distinct module than the ventrolateral region since stimulation of this neuronal cluster did not increase SPA in male mice (Correa et al. 2015).

Figure 3
Figure 3

Schematic overview of the proposed neuronal mechanisms by which testosterone increases male physical activity (see text). A, androgens; DA, dopamine; E2, estradiol; MeA, medial amygdala; NAcc, nucleus accumbens; SPA, spontaneous physical activity; VMH, ventromedial hypothalamus.

Citation: Journal of Endocrinology 238, 1; 10.1530/JOE-18-0125

Medial amygdala

The neuronal basis regulating physical activity likely implies other neuronal circuitries beyond the hypothalamic energy balance systems, such as brain regions involved in emotional and motivational processing (Fig. 3). MeA neurons projecting to the hypothalamus play a central role in generating emotional responses to chemosensory signals (Keshavarzi et al. 2014, Takahashi 2014). Compared to other amygdalar nuclei, the expression of sex steroid receptors is enriched in the MeA (Gofflot et al. 2007). In addition, a high proportion of MeA neurons are aromatase positive, and therefore this brain region might be exposed to relatively high levels of E2 (Wu et al. 2009, Unger et al. 2015). In male mice, ERα signaling in the MeA is required for the pubertal organizational actions of testosterone on social and sexual behaviors (Sano et al. 2016). In addition, Xu et al. provided compelling evidence that ERα signaling in the MeA stimulated SPA in males and secondarily prevented body weight gain in the setting of high-fat diet (Xu et al. 2015). Particularly, deletion of ERα in the MeA of adult male mice resulted in a low activity phenotype, whilst the other components of energy expenditure, namely thermogenesis and resting metabolic rate, remained unaltered (Xu et al. 2015). Together with the VMH (unpublished data of Ogawa et al.), the MeA is the only brain region identified so far that could be mediating the stimulatory effects of testosterone on male physical activity (Fig. 3). In addition, these findings also imply a role for brain aromatization in testosterone regulation of activity, similar to that described for male-typical aggressive behavior (Unger et al. 2015).

Rewarding and motivational pathways

Besides the metabolic-regulatory circuitries of the hypothalamus and the MeA, brain regions controlling rewarding and motivational functions might also be involved in the regulation of physical activity (Garland et al. 2011) (Fig. 3). Endurance running generates a rewarding aftereffect in both humans and rodents (Boecker et al. 2008, Fernandes et al. 2015). The traditional view attributes reward functions to dopamine signaling in the nucleus accumbens (Wise 2004, Palmiter 2008). However, recent findings show that other dopamine terminal fields are also components of the brain reward system, including the dorsal striatum, amygdala and frontal cortex (Wise 2004, Palmiter 2008). Following the withdrawal of running wheels, mice selectively bred for high wheel running showed a more pronounced increase in striatal activation compared to controls (Rhodes et al. 2003). Also in male mice, the relative volume of the striatum predicted the levels of subsequent wheel running activity on in vivo MRI (Cahill et al. 2015).

Testosterone might act directly on male midbrain dopamine neurons by binding to their AR and/or ERs receptors but also indirectly through the afferent neurons projecting to them (Kritzer & Creutz 2008, Aubele & Kritzer 2012, Purves-Tyson et al. 2012, Locklear et al. 2017). However, it is not clear if the main contribution of androgens to the overall dopaminergic tone is at the level of dopamine synthesis, transport, release, metabolization and/or signaling (Aubele & Kritzer 2011, Khasnavis et al. 2013, Purves-Tyson et al. 2014, Wang et al. 2016). Testosterone restoration of basal extracellular dopamine levels in the mesocortical dopaminergic pathway implies AR-dependent mechanisms, though this might not apply to the rest of dopaminergic systems (Kritzer 2003, Aubele & Kritzer 2011, Locklear et al. 2017). Amphetamine injections induce a hyperlocomotion response in rodents, which has been ascribed to the drug’s dopamine-releasing actions (Salahpour et al. 2008). Notably, ORX increases, whilst testosterone restores the responsiveness to the locomotor effects of amphetamine in both rats and mice (Purves-Tyson et al. 2015, Jardí et al. 2018). Overall, there is enough evidence to conclude that androgens influence the dopamine function in vivo. In addition, we recently showed that systemic administration of the dopamine receptor 2 antagonist L-741,626 reduced by almost 50% the distance ran by ORX+testosterone-treated mice, whilst it had no effect on castrated mice receiving vehicle (Jardí et al. 2018). Further research is required to narrow down the relevant androgen-responsive components of the dopamine system that might be mediating the effects of testosterone on physical activity (Jardí et al. 2018).

To summarize, the control of activity and metabolism are regulated in a coupled manner by estrogen-responsive hypothalamic pathways in females. The implication of similar mechanisms in males remains to be proven. Extrahypothalamic inputs coming from brain regions related to emotional and rewarding processes might modulate the homeostatic control exerted by the hypothalamus. Testosterone might act on the MeA to increase physical activity in males following aromatization into E2 (Fig. 3). The dopamine system is another potential candidate mediating the effects of testosterone on activity, but further research is required to determine the mechanisms implicated (Fig. 3).

Human evidence

After reviewing the available data, it is clear that androgens regulate physical activity in male rodents, but in men, it remains a question. The etiology of physical activity in humans appears to be much more complex than in animals, being influenced by the social and cultural environments (Bauman et al. 2012). Heritability studies in twins and families suggest that our drive to engage in exercise is also determined by intrinsic biological processes (Simonen et al. 2002, Bouchard & Rankinen 2006, Stubbe et al. 2006). Nevertheless, the genetics of physical activity remain currently unknown, with only limited genotype–phenotype associations found so far. A candidate gene study in postmenopausal women showed an association between aromatase gene polymorphisms and time spent in physical activity (Salmen et al. 2003). This association for the aromatase gene was replicated in a GWAS for leisure-time exercise behavior but only in one out of the two populations of adult men included (De Moor et al. 2009). Polymorphisms in the AR or ERα gene were not associated with the amount of physical activity per week in either young or middle-aged men or women (Lorentzon et al. 1999, Salmén et al. 2000, Okura et al. 2003, Walsh et al. 2005). Aging is associated with a decline in physical activity in both genders (Jones et al. 2011) as well as with a gradual reduction in serum testosterone, especially its free fraction, in men (Wu et al. 2008). So far, studies of the association between late-onset hypogonadism and the age-related decline in activity have produced inconsistent results. A small cross-sectional study in community-dwelling men showed an association between low testosterone levels and a decrease in pedometer-recorded step counts (Cobo et al. 2017). Nevertheless, other studies using larger cohorts and activity-based questionnaires yielded conflicting observations (Amin et al. 2000, Beutel et al. 2005, Tajar et al. 2012). Similarly, there is no clear evidence from interventional studies that supports a causal effect of sex steroids on physical activity. Several double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials have examined the effects of testosterone replacement on both muscle as well as functional mobility in large samples of community-dwelling men with late-onset hypogonadism (Emmelot-Vonk et al. 2008, Srinivas-Shankar et al. 2010, Snyder et al. 2016, Storer et al. 2016). Overall, testosterone supplementation in hypogonadal men results in modest gains in muscle mass and strength, but the benefits on their overall physical function are inconsistent (Emmelot-Vonk et al. 2008, Srinivas-Shankar et al. 2010, Snyder et al. 2016, Storer et al. 2016). In addition, testosterone therapy in men is hampered by its potential adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and the prostate (Basaria et al. 2010). Therefore, the clinical meaningfulness of testosterone replacement in healthy elderly men with late-onset hypogonadism remains debated. Remarkably, treatment with testosterone for 6 months did not affect the self-reported levels of activity in a cohort of 274 community-dwelling frail elderly men with low levels of testosterone (Srinivas-Shankar et al. 2010). Smaller studies in similar patient populations also showed a lack of testosterone effect on activity scores (Kenny et al. 2001, 2010). Contrarily, a positive association between serum testosterone levels and activity scores was found in a cohort of elderly men receiving a combined treatment of testosterone and recombinant human growth hormone (Sattler et al. 2011). The authors hypothesized that this association might reflect a central action of testosterone on the individual’s mood (Sattler et al. 2011). To date, there is no real evidence supporting the former premise, with the effects of testosterone on vitality and mood parameters in elderly men being unclear (Snyder et al. 1999, Srinivas-Shankar et al. 2010, Snyder et al. 2016). More importantly, all previous studies were based on activity questionnaires, which show limited reliability and accuracy (Strath et al. 2013). Thus, caution should be taken when interpreting the data. In conclusion, it is premature to support or reject convincingly the implication of androgens in physical activity in men.

Conclusion

A wide body of preclinical evidence makes a strong case for androgens as potential candidates contributing to the biological basis regulating male physical activity. Nonetheless, reliable human studies are lacking and our present knowledge of the implicated processes is very limited. This is explained in part by the fact that the interest in the biological factors determining activity levels is relatively recent. Measurement of physical activity in humans most often relies on self-reported instruments due to their practicality and low cost. Nevertheless, these measures have severe limitations in terms of reliability and validity, being subjected to several biases arising from both the respondent and/or the investigator. In addition, the terminology as well as the analysis and interpretation of the data differ markedly between studies. The current challenge is to validate affordable objective measures that can be implemented in large cohorts. In comparison, the mechanisms underlying the anabolic effects of androgens on muscle are better defined. Androgens increase muscle power in both young and elderly men, particularly when combined with exercise. In male mice, myogenic AR signaling drives in part the mild effects of testosterone stimulating appendicular muscle strength. Also in male mice, the modest and slow gains in muscle mass induced by androgens contrast with their dramatic and fast actions increasing wheel running. Taken together, preclinical data do not support the notion that androgens stimulate physical activity primarily by favoring muscle function. On the other hand, the central nature of testosterone effects on activity is supported by the recent identification of sex-steroid-responsive neuronal circuitries modulating physical activity. Although data in males are still scarce, the former findings indicate that brain aromatization is required for the full action of testosterone on activity. In conclusion, the CNS appears as the primary target of action for androgens stimulating physical activity, whilst the multiple beneficial effects of testosterone on muscle and other peripheral organs do not drive the increase in activity but might contribute to the adaptation to exercise. A better understanding of the underlying biological mechanisms could have implications for the design of more effective interventions to promote physical activity.

Declaration of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest that could be perceived as prejudicing the impartiality of this review.

Funding

This work was supported by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO; grant G0D2217N) and the KU Leuven Research Council (grant GOA/15/017). F J is supported by a post-doctoral grant from FWO.

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