Individuals with traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) represent a population with extreme inactivity. The purpose of the current research was to investigate the metabolic differences between extremely inactive disabled individuals (SCI sedentary group), active disabled individuals (SCI athletes), and able-bodied individuals. Fasting morning blood samples were obtained for the determination of high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDLc) subfractions, glucose, and insulin. The sedentary SCI group was comprised of 77 consecutive male admissions to a rehabilitation center. The 17 SCI athletes were recruited prior to competition at the annual National Wheelchair Games. Total HDLc and both its subfractions were significantly lower (P less than 0.01) in the male SCI sedentary population than in the SCI athletes or able-bodied controls. HDL2 was significantly elevated (P less than 0.01) in the SCI athlete compared to the SCI sedentary group (42.7 vs 34.1 mg X dl-1) and was similar to the control population (46.1 mg X dl-1). Glucose levels were similar in the two SCI groups but were both significantly lower (P less than 0.05) than in the able-bodied controls. These data suggest that the extreme inactivity observed in disabled populations is associated with lower HDLc concentrations and presumably an increase in coronary heart disease risk if these values were to persist over time. Additionally, it appears that physical activity is associated with increases in total HDLc, primarily through the HDL2 subfraction. Glucose and insulin were similar for both SCI groups despite the marked difference in activity levels, suggesting that these parameters may not be associated with activity.