If the whining about weight loss obstacles is to be believed, metabolism is one of the most commonly cited banes of the dieter’s existence. A slow metabolism has been blamed for the weight we carry, the weight we cannot take off and the weight we continually put back on after a seemingly successful weight loss junket.
There is a lot known about the metabolism, but there are at least as many myths floating around as there are truths. Gather round as we dispel the myths and reinforce the facts of raising your metabolism to aid in your weight loss ventures.
What it is
At its most basic level, your metabolism is the amount of calories your body burns to maintain its basic functions. If your body were an engine, your metabolic rate would be the speed you burn calories while your engine idles. If you want to calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR: the amount of calories your resting body needs to maintain its normal body function), grab a calculator and use this formula:
MEN: 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg*) + (5 x height in cm**) – (6.8 x age)
WOMEN: 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg*) + (1.7 x height in cm**) – (4.7 x age)
*to convert kg to lb = weight in pounds divided by 2.2
**to convert cm to inches = height in inches x 2.54
If you increase your metabolic rate, that means that your body automatically burns more calories just maintaining basic functioning in your body, facilitating weight loss with increased activity and proper nutrition.
There are at least a dozen factors that affect your metabolic rate to varying degrees. At the top of those is your body composition. The more lean muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate. This is to say, the more lean muscle you have in ratio to your percentage of body fat, the better.
Another factor is meal frequency and the types of foods you eat. You activity level, your stress level, your hydration level, and the amount of sleep you get all affect your metabolism to one extent or another. Finally, genetics and hormone levels in your body also play a role in establishing your metabolic rate and the ease at which you will be able to change it.
While age is listed as a factor in slowing metabolic rates, the real factor is not the wear of years on your body, but rather the loss of muscle mass as you slow down your activity level as you age. Certainly, your body burns more energy as you grow as a child and adolescent, but as long as you keep up the activity and percentage of lean muscle tissue in your body, there is no reason that your metabolism cannot be the same at 30 and 40 as it was at 20.
The only thing that is going to change your metabolism over the long term is building lean muscle mass. The most efficient way to do this is by weight training. Aerobic activity, while it will increase your metabolic rate for up to a few hours after your work out (depending on the intensity of the workout), will not permanently raise your metabolic rate, as, once your body’s systems slow down to their resting levels again it settles at the resting rate. This is only altered by systems of the resting body that burn fat while you are inactive. The most demanding of these is lean muscle tissue, which requires energy to burn at all times.
In order to build lean muscle mass, you have to weight train. The most efficient way to do this is to lift weights 6 times a week, working every major muscle group in that time. For instance, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, work your arms, back, shoulders and chest; on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, work your legs, glutes and abs.
If you don’t have 30-60 minutes a day to lift weights (because you know that you need to be looking at cardio to help burn fat and boost your overall health), here is a great tip: if you can fit weight training in 3 times a week, make sure that every time you lift, you incorporate strength training in your legs. Your legs muscles are the largest muscle group in your body, and therefore, when in shape, will require the most energy expended to maintain them.
Do not forget that if you are doing aerobic activities like running, walking, biking, or climbing, you are also using your legs and therefore building lean muscle tissue. If you get easily bored simply lifting weights, incorporating aerobic activity that conditions your legs is a great alternative, and also builds heart health and fat burning into your regimen.
While all aerobic activity per se will not permanently alter your metabolism, is important for building a healthy heart and lungs and supporting basic organ health. It also burns extra calories that can be stored as fat when the metabolism takes a downturn. Also, aerobic activity gives your metabolism a punch, which can keep it raised and burning calories for a couple of hours after the activity.
One thing to understand about your metabolism is that there are several things that can give it a kick in the butt throughout the day, and that can help you maximize your workouts and just make your body work harder. While this does not affect your BMR, it does support the burning of calories when you are active. And really, when concerns about metabolism arise, it is almost always in the context of maximizing the burning of calories and losing weight.
Short of finding out you have a thyroid condition (and these are way less common that people like to claim!), building lean muscle mass is the only way to permanently raise your metabolic rate. However, keep in mind that the efficiency of your body’s ability to burn calories throughout the day is dependent on many factors.
Your metabolism can slow over the course of a day or week depending on factors such as what you are putting into your body, and how often, but the truth about those factors may surprise you. This will be the subject of part two of this exploration into metabolism: Metabolic Boosters: Fact and Fiction.