Plasma steroids, body composition, and fat distribution: effects of age, sex, and exercise training

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Plasma steroid hormone levels vary between men and women, but their associations with BMI and adiposity are controversial. Furthermore, little is known about the role of exercise programs on the relationship between steroid hormones and adiposity. This report evaluates these relationships for plasma levels of adrenal, gonadal, and conjugated steroids with body composition and fat distribution in sedentary men and women, aged 17–65 years, and their responses to an exercise program.


In the sedentary state, 270 men (29% Blacks) and 304 women (34% Blacks) from the HERITAGE Family Study were available. Among them, 242 men and 238 women completed a 20-week fully standardized exercise program. Fourteen steroid hormones and SHBG concentrations were assayed in a fasted state and were compared for their associations with adiposity in men and women and in response to the exercise program. Covariates adjusted for in partial correlation analysis were age, ancestry, menopause status (women), and oral contraceptives/hormone replacement treatment status (women) at baseline, as well as baseline value of the trait for the training response. Differences among normal weight, overweight, and obese subjects were also considered. Statistical significance was set at P < 0.0001.


Baseline levels of dihydrotesterone (DHT), 17 hydroxy progesterone (OHPROG), sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), and testosterone (TESTO) were negatively associated with fat mass and abdominal fat (P < 0.0001) in men and for SHBG in women (P < 0.0001). TESTO was not correlated with fat-free mass in men or women, but was significantly associated with % fat-free mass in men. No association was detected between baseline steroid hormone levels and changes in adiposity traits in response to 20 weeks of exercise.


In men, low DHT, OHPROG, SHBG, and TESTO were associated with higher adiposity and abdominal and visceral fat. A similar adiposity profile was observed in women with low SHBG.

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The HERITAGE Family Study has been supported over the years by multiple grants from the National Institute for Heart, Lung and Blood Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (HL45670, CB and TR; HL47323, ASL; HL47317, DC Rao; HL47327, JS Skinner; HL47321, JH Wilmore, deceased). CB is partially funded by the John W. Barton Sr. Chair in Genetics and Nutrition, and by the NIH-funded COBRE grant (NIH 8 P30GM118430-01). ZH is funded by the China Scholarship Council (file no. 201603620001) and China Institute of Sport Science (2015-01, 2016-01). We would like to express our gratitude to Dr. Alain Belanger (retired) and his staff from the Molecular Endocrinology Laboratory of the Laval University Medical Center in Quebec City, Canada, for the assays of the steroids and their dedication to the HERITAGE Family Study.

Author information


  1. Human Genomics Laboratory, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge, LA, USA

    • Zihong He
    • , Tuomo Rankinen
    •  & Claude Bouchard
  2. Department of Biology, China Institute of Sport Science, Beijing, China

    • Zihong He
  3. School of Kinesiology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA

    • Arthur S. Leon
  4. Department of Kinesiology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, USA

    • James S. Skinner
  5. School of Nutrition, Laval University, Quebec City, QC, Canada

    • André Tchernof


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Conflict of interest

AT receives research funding from Johnson & Johnson Medical Companies for studies unrelated to the present paper. The remaining authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Claude Bouchard.

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