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Recent intense activity in teens linked to healthier metabolic profile

Never too late to benefit from physical activity, but we must remove barriers to keeping it up

Louise Prime

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Adolescents are likelier to have a healthier metabolic profile if they spend more time being intensively active, especially if this activity is recent, according to UK research. The study*, published in PLOS Medicine, showed that the correlation with more time spent intensively active is stronger than the association with less time spent sedentary.

The researchers, led from the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol, explained that multiple occasions of device-measured physical activity have not been previously examined in relation to metabolic traits, so they investigated associations of total activity, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), and sedentary time from three accelerometry measures taken across adolescence with detailed traits related to systemic metabolism.

They analysed data on 1,826 male and female participants, who had been recruited at birth in 1991-92 via their mothers into the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children offspring cohort, and who attended clinics in 2003-05, 2005-06, and 2006-08. Waist-worn uniaxial accelerometers recorded participants’ total activity (counts/min), MVPA (min/d), and sedentary time (min/d) over at least three days at mean ages of 12 years, 14 years, and 15 years.

The researchers examined the relationship between the children’s current activity (at age 15 years), mean activity across occasions, interaction by previous activity, and change in activity, and their metabolic characteristics at the age of 15 years. These characteristics included systolic and diastolic blood pressure, insulin, C-reactive protein, and 230 traits from targeted metabolomics (nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy), including lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides, amino and fatty acids, glycoprotein acetyls, among others.)

They reported that, overall, higher levels of current activity were associated with favourable metabolic traits, including lower very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and remnant cholesterol, higher high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and lower inflammatory factors. They also found that these factors were not associated with previous activity levels.

The associations between activity and metabolic traits appeared to be less consistent for sedentary time than for MVPA based on longer-term measures, and were weak for change in all activity types from age 12 years to 15 years. Evidence was also weak for interaction between activity types at the age of 15 years and previous activity measures in relation to most traits.

The study authors noted: “Our results support associations of physical activity with metabolic traits that are small in magnitude and more robust for higher MVPA than lower sedentary time. Activity fluctuates over time, but associations of current activity with most metabolic traits do not differ by previous activity. This suggests that the metabolic effects of physical activity, if causal, depend on most recent engagement.”

They commented: “This suggests that it’s never too late to benefit from physical activity, but also that we need to remove barriers that make activity hard to maintain. Keeping it up is key. This includes making weight loss via diet a priority, since higher weight is itself a barrier to moving.”


*Bell JA, Hamer M, Richmond RC, et al. Associations of device-measured physical activity across adolescence with metabolic traits: Prospective cohort study. PLoS Med 2018: 15(9): e1002649. DOI:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002649

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