Immune cells constantly patrol the body via the bloodstream and migrate into multiple tissues where they face variable and sometimes demanding environmental conditions. Nutrient and oxygen availability can vary during homeostasis, and especially during the course of an immune response, creating a demand for immune cells that are highly metabolically dynamic. As an evolutionary response, immune cells have developed different metabolic programmes to supply them with cellular energy and biomolecules, enabling them to cope with changing and challenging metabolic conditions. In the past 5 years, it has become clear that cellular metabolism affects immune cell function and differentiation, and that disease-specific metabolic configurations might provide an explanation for the dysfunctional immune responses seen in rheumatic diseases. This Review outlines the metabolic challenges faced by immune cells in states of homeostasis and inflammation, as well as the variety of metabolic configurations utilized by immune cells during differentiation and activation. Changes in cellular metabolism that contribute towards the dysfunctional immune responses seen in rheumatic diseases are also briefly discussed.