Physical inactivity as the culprit of metabolic inflexibility: evidence from bed-rest studies

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2011 Oct;111(4):1201-10. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00698.2011. Epub 2011 Aug 11.


Although it is no longer debatable that sedentary behaviors are an actual cause of many metabolic diseases, the physiology of physical inactivity has been poorly investigated for this purpose. Along with microgravity, the physiological adaptations to spaceflights require metabolic adaptations to physical inactivity, and that is exceedingly well-simulated during the ground-based microgravity bed-rest analogs. Bed rest thus represents a unique model to investigate the mechanisms by which physical inactivity leads to the development of current societal chronic diseases. For decades, however, clinicians and physiologists working in space research have worked separately without taking full awareness of potential strong mutual questioning. This review summarizes the data collected over the last 60 years on metabolic adaptations to bed rest in healthy subjects. Our aim is to provide evidence that supports the hypothesis that physical inactivity per se is one of the primary causes in the development of metabolic inflexibility. This evidence will focus on four main tenants of metabolic inflexiblity: 1) insulin resistance, 2) impaired lipid trafficking and hyperlipidemia, 3) a shift in substrate use toward glucose, and 4) a shift in muscle fiber type and ectopic fat storage. Altogether, this hypothesis places sedentary behaviors upstream on the list of factors involved in metabolic inflexibility, which is considered to be a primary impairment in several metabolic disorders such as obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bed Rest / adverse effects*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Metabolic Diseases / etiology*
  • Metabolic Diseases / metabolism
  • Metabolic Diseases / pathology