Greater consumption of n3 (ω3) polyunsaturated fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can reduce risk for cardiovascular disease events, yet their effects on metabolic risk factors and diabetes remain unclear.

This cross-sectional study used a community volunteer sample to test whether the associations between n3 fatty acids and cardiometabolic risk vary as a function of physical activity. Participants were 344 generally healthy adults, 30-54 y of age, not taking fish oil supplements or confounding medications. Serum phospholipid EPA and DHA were used together (EPA+DHA) as a biomarker of n3 fatty acid exposure. Cardiometabolic risk was calculated as a continuous measure based on standardized distributions of blood pressure, waist circumference, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, and a simple count of risk factors. Insulin resistance was estimated from the homeostatic model assessment.

Physical activity was found to predict cardiometabolic risk (P ≤ 0.02) and insulin resistance (P ≤ 0.02) and to moderate the association between EPA+DHA and both cardiometabolic risk (P-interaction ≤ 0.02) and insulin resistance (P-interaction ≤ 0.02).

Specifically, higher EPA+DHA was associated with lower cardiometabolic risk and insulin resistance in persons engaged in regular physical activity but not in relatively inactive individuals.

These findings were noted in several components of cardiometabolic risk, in men and women separately, and in models adjusted for overall diet quality. In midlife adults, habitual physical activity may be necessary to unmask the salutary effects of n3 fatty acids on cardiometabolic risk and insulin resistance.