Metabolism at the Max: How Vertebrate Organisms Respond to Physical Activity

Compr Physiol. 2015 Sep 20;5(4):1677-703. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c130032.


Activity metabolism is supported by phosphorylated reserves (adenosine triphosphate, creatine phosphate), glycolytic, and aerobic metabolism. Because there is no apparent variation between vertebrate groups in phosphorylated reserves or glycolytic potential of skeletal muscle, variation in maximal metabolic rate between major vertebrate groups represents selection operating on aerobic mechanisms. Maximal rates of oxygen consumption in vertebrates are supported by increased conductive and diffusive fluxes of oxygen from the environment to the mitochondria. Maximal CO2 efflux from the mitochondria to the environment must be matched to oxygen flux, or imbalances in pH will occur. Among vertebrates, there are a variety of modes of locomotion and vastly different rates of metabolism supported by a variety of cardiorespiratory architectures. However, interclass comparisons strongly implicate systemic oxygen transport as the rate-limiting step to maximal oxygen consumption for all vertebrate groups. The key evolutionary step that accounts for the approximately 10-fold increase in maximal oxygen flux in endotherms versus ectotherms appears to be maximal heart rate. Other variables such as ventilation, pulmonary/gill, and tissue diffusing capacity, have excess capacity and thus are not limiting to maximal oxygen consumption. During maximal activity, the ratio of ventilation to respiratory system blood flow is remarkably similar among vertebrates, and CO2 extraction efficiency increases while oxygen extraction efficiency decreases, suggesting that the respiratory system provides the largest resistance to maximal CO2 flux. Despite the large variation in modes of activity and rates of metabolism, maximal rates of oxygen and CO2 flux appear to be limited by the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, respectively.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Motor Activity*
  • Oxygen Consumption*