Insulin resistance in skeletal muscle is associated with 1) relative increases in the proportion of glycolytic and fast-twitch muscle fibers and decreases in the proportion of more oxidative fibers and 2) a higher proportion of the saturated fatty acids in membrane structural lipids. Exercise is known to improve insulin action. The aims of the current studies were 1) to investigate the relationship between muscle fiber type and membrane fatty acid composition and 2) to determine how voluntary exercise might influence both variables. In sedentary Wistar rats in experiment 1, increased amounts of unsaturated fatty acids were found in the more oxidative insulin-sensitive red quadriceps and soleus muscles, whereas reduced levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids were found in primarily glycolytic white quadriceps muscles. In experiment 2, voluntary running-wheel exercise by adult female rats over 45 days resulted in reduced proportions of type lib fibers (P = 0.01) and increased proportions of type IIa/IIx fibers (P = 0.03) in extensor digitorum longus muscle. The magnitude of these changes was related to the distance run (r = 0.73, P = 0.04; r = 0.79, P = 0.02, respectively). Exercise significantly increased oxidative capacity, as assessed by the proportion of intensely NADH-stained fibers (P = 0.0004) and citrate synthase (P = 0.003) and hexokinase (P = 0.04) activities. Citrate synthase activity was also increased by exercise in soleus muscle, where, as expected, no fiber type changes were detected. No significant differences in the fatty acid profile of soleus and extensor digitorum longus were found between groups. Voluntary exercise may play a role in improving insulin sensitivity through beneficial alterations in muscle fiber type and oxidative capacity. Membrane fatty acid composition can be improved by diet but appears unaffected by moderate exercise. Taken together, these results suggest that diet and exercise may improve insulin action through separate and synergistic mechanisms.