What You Can Do to Protect Your Metabolic Flexibility

What You Can Do to Protect Your Metabolic Flexibility

A sedentary lifestyle can sabotage your metabolic flexibility, putting you at risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

You already know that sitting too much is one of the worst things you can do to your health. Around 50 million of you are profoundly sedentary. Sitting accounts—at least in part—for the fact that more than one-third of American adults are obese. That’s one in six people to be exact.

Like a bad chain reaction, sitting creates stiffness from your hips to your back to your shoulders and neck. But poor mobility isn’t the only way a sedentary lifestyle affects your flexibility. It’s also directly related to another major health problem known as metabolic inflexibility. When you’re overweight, sedentary and eat high-fat, overly processed foods, your body has a hard time switching from using carbs to fat as fuel.

That’s because you’re supplying your body with an excess of these two energy sources and not spending as much energy they can support. This weakens your body’s ability to manage insulin and power your muscles. As a result, you may develop elevated triglycerides, insulin resistance, elevated glucose levels and type 2 diabetes.

Can you reverse muscle inflexibility?
Metabolic flexibility, on the other hand, happens when you supply your body with a healthy balance of complex carbs (in veggies, fruits and whole grains) and healthy fats (avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, wild salmon), in proportion to the demands of your physical activity. Your body can efficiently use carbs and fats as it needs them.

But how do you restore metabolic flexibility if you’re obese, overweight, or have insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes? Start moving! And you don’t have to train like LeBron James to reap the benefits of exercise. Simply getting up and moving around can go a long way. Boosting your burn rate of lipids and carbs allows your cells to build healthy muscles and control glucose levels. The ongoing Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study (ACLS), which started in 1970 and includes more than 80,000 patients, has found that poor fitness levels accounts for about 16 percent of all participants’ death. How did the researchers get to that figure? By determining how many deaths could have been avoided if people had walked for just 30 minutes a day! That’s not even enough to qualify for the minimal fitness routine the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends:

  • At least 150 minutes weekly of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (more than 20 minutes a day), or 75 minutes weekly of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combo. Plus, resistance training two or more days a week.
  • Progress by increasing activity to 300 minutes weekly (40+ minutes a day) at moderate intensity, or 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equivalent combo.

Need more incentive? The ACLS also found that moderately fit men lived six years longer than unfit men. And women who were very fit were 55 percent less likely to die from breast cancer than those who weren’t in good shape.

If you want to ensure your body is metabolically flexible, adopt a diet that provides you with the fuel your cells want: lean proteins, 100 percent whole grains and seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Don’t forget to get moving, too. Start by walking 20 minutes a day (your goal is 10,000 steps daily) or taking a yoga class. Plus, use resistance bands to strengthen and engage underused muscles. The rewards are real—from metabolic flexibility to muscle flexibility. You’ll increase your self-confidence and achieve a younger RealAge.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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