Want to get fit in the new year? Focus on becoming more ‘metabolically flexible,' CU professor says

BOULDER, Colo. – Rather than making a New Year’s resolution to cut carbs or jump on some trendy diet, people who want to lose weight or generally improve their health should focus instead on improving their “metabolic flexibility,” according to a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Metabolic flexibility” refers to the body’s ability to adapt to the various kinds of foods you consume, like fats and carbs. When your body is metabolically flexible, it can handle different types of fuel efficiently without increasing the risk of developing health problems like diabetes or heart disease.

“If you’re not metabolically flexible you’ll have a hard time burning fats or sugars and that can set you up for disease,” said Inigo San Millan, an assistant professor at CU Boulder and the director of the Sports Performance Program at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine Center. “If you are, you can enjoy the pleasures of a wide variety of foods and be healthy.”

The focus of San Millan’s research is mitochondria – the tiny so-called “powerhouses” inside cells that turn nutrients into energy. Healthy mitochondria are adept at burning fats and carbs and also clearing out lactate, which can cause problems when it builds up in your body.

High-performance athletes have the healthiest mitochondria, while Type 2 diabetics have the worst, San Millan said.

San Millan has developed a non-invasive way to test a person’s metabolic flexibility and starting next year, some insurance companies will cover the test. He’s also working on a portable, commercial version that would allow someone to test their flexibility with a single drop of blood. A study published in June showed that San Millan’s blood test accurately measures mitochondrial health.

So, once a person finds out how metabolically flexible they are, how do they go about improving? It’s pretty simple – get moving.

“The only medication that increases mitochondrial function is exercise,” San Millan said. “But it has to be the right intensity.”

Taking a one-hour walk four times a week should be enough to boost mitochondrial function in someone who isn’t active, San Millan said. But it’s important to strike a balance: Not exercising enough won’t do any good and overworking yourself too quickly could lead to negative outcomes.

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