Sedentary behaviour is a key determinant of metabolic inflexibility

J Physiol. 2018 Apr 15;596(8):1319-1330. doi: 10.1113/JP273282. Epub 2017 Jul 4.


Metabolic flexibility is defined as the ability to adapt substrate oxidation rates in response to changes in fuel availability. The inability to switch between the oxidation of lipid and carbohydrate appears to be an important feature of chronic disorders such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Laboratory assessment of metabolic flexibility has traditionally involved measurement of the respiratory quotient (RQ) by indirect calorimetry during the fasted to fed transition (e.g. mixed meal challenge) or during a hyperinsulinaemic-euglycaemic clamp. Under these controlled experimental conditions, 'metabolic inflexibility' is characterized by lower fasting fat oxidation (higher fasting RQ) and/or an impaired ability to oxidize carbohydrate during feeding or insulin-stimulated conditions (lower postprandial or clamp RQ). This experimental paradigm has provided fundamental information regarding the role of substrate oxidation in the development of obesity and insulin resistance. However, the key determinants of metabolic flexibility among relevant clinical populations remain unclear. Herein, we propose that habitual physical activity levels are a primary determinant of metabolic flexibility. We present evidence demonstrating that high levels of physical activity predict metabolic flexibility, while physical inactivity and sedentary behaviours trigger a state of metabolic 'inflexibility', even among individuals who meet physical activity recommendations. Furthermore, we describe alternative experimental approaches to studying the concept of metabolic flexibility across a range of activity and inactivity. Finally, we address the promising use of strategies that aim to reduce sedentary behaviours as therapy to improve metabolic flexibility and reduce weight gain risk.

Keywords: Physical activity; glucose metabolism; insulin sensitivity; lipid metabolism; obesity; physical inactivity; weight regulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Exercise
  • Humans
  • Insulin Resistance*
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Sedentary Behavior*