Metabolism is a murky subject that has taken on a meaning of its own. Read on to discover what your metabolism really is, myths about your metabolism and nine techniques to rev it up, and reach your fat burning potential!
What Is Metabolism?
The word metabolism refers to how much energy your body uses, or how many calories you burn in a day. A starting point to measure your metabolism is calculating BMR (basal metabolic rate), which measures how many calories you burn at rest, or if you lied in bed all day.
Even though you're not moving around, your body uses energy (burns calories) by keeping your heart beating, sustaining your muscles, breathing, and regulating your temperature, among other functions.
Then add to your BMR how many calories you burn doing your daily activities, and add what you burn in the gym, and voila! You have your metabolism.
The word metabolism is one of the most misunderstood words related to training (second only to motivation, but that's another story). People tell me all the time that their slow metabolism is to blame for their less-than-stellar results. Sadly, this myth is being perpetuated by the weight loss industry.
The other day I saw a commercial for a weight loss pill that claimed to raise your metabolism "without the need to change your diet or exercise." The voice over said something to the effect of, "You can't lose weight because you have a slow metabolism. Thin people are lucky because they were born with fast metabolisms." I was too stunned to speak.
Not only is the term metabolism misused, but it's being manipulated by the weight loss industry to sell products. I have to say here that I'm not bashing fat burners, in fact I take one myself. But they're intended to assist people who exercise regularly and rigorously, use fat for energy during exercise instead of sugar stores or worse, muscle tissue.
When people take pills to amp up their metabolism without hitting it hard in the gym, they're effectively abusing such pills and are putting their health at serious risk. Now back to the commercial. First of all overweight people actually have faster metabolisms than thin people because they are literally carrying around extra weight.
For example, a 130 pound, 30 year-old woman who is 5'5" tall has a BMR of 1384. The same woman at 230 pounds has a BMR of 1817. And the 230 pound woman burns more calories doing while exercising as well. So actually, thin people aren't "lucky" to be born with fast metabolisms. Their metabolisms are slower than overweight people.
Second, genes do play a role in metabolism, but I wouldn't go as far as to use the word "lucky" in describing those with faster metabolisms. Differences in metabolic rates are smaller than we think. Furthermore, people who have faster metabolisms are probably already doing things I've listed below either consciously or unconsciously. Again, luck really doesn't have anything to do with it.
The main point: we don't have to be victims of our "slow" metabolisms. There are several things you can do to easily reach the maximum potential of your metabolism. Read on to find out how!
Ways To Increase Your Metabolism
Do HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
HIIT is performed by alternating highly intense bursts of exercise for 30 seconds to a minute ("highly intense" - not less than 85% of your maximum heart rate) with slow recovery for one to two minutes.
Without getting too technical, HIIT spikes your metabolism after your finished (while you're at rest) because your body is so strained, it needs extra time to recover
Think of it this way: gunning your car for 30 seconds, then braking down to 10 MPH, then gunning and braking again uses much more gas than driving at a steady pace. The same is true for your body, except in this case, the more fuel (body fat) you use, the better!
An example of HIIT on a treadmill is running on 9.0 for 30 seconds, then walking on 3.0 for one minute. Repeat this 10 times and you're looking at 28 minutes total (even including a 5 minute warm up and 5 minute cool down). Try to work your way up to 1 minute high intensity/1 minute low intensity.
Like HIIT, lifting weights raises your metabolism long after you're finished—experts estimate that your metabolism stays elevated for up to 39 hours! Again, this is because lifting strains your body so much, that it needs extra time to recover.
I assume that if you're reading this article on Bodybuilding.com that you're already an avid weight lifter. Kudos for that! Always remember to stay focused and intense in the gym to reap the maximum benefits.
Does it make you crazy when someone speaks of "converting" fat to muscle? Me too, because as you know, muscle and fat are different tissues.
Maybe the most important distinction between the two is that muscle is more metabolically active than fat. Exactly how much more active is subject to some debate.
Some experts estimate that each extra pound of muscle you gain burns 30-50 extra calories a day, while others estimate that a pound of muscle burns 6 calories at rest, compared to 2 calories burned by a pound of fat.
Even the more conservative estimate means that it's beneficial to your metabolism to be muscular.
Sure you know that protein fills you up, but did you know that protein has a greater thermogenic effect than the other macronutrients? The thermogenic effect of food (TEF) is a measure of energy that your body needs to digest food.
Protein is harder for your body to digest and thus takes more energy than does fat or carbs. The TEF of protein is 25%, meaning 25% of the calories of each gram of protein is burned off through digestion, whereas the TEF of carbohydrates is 5%, and is only 2% for fats.
Take advantage of this metabolism booster by including lean protein in every meal... all five to six of them.
Eat 5-6 small meals a day
The act of eating actually raises your metabolism—don't go super-sizing it just yet! As I just mentioned, digesting food takes energy, and a different amount of energy is required for each macronutrient. So eating several meals, as opposed to three squares, raises your metabolism five to six times a day, as opposed to only three.
This technique works on another level. When your body doesn't get food, your metabolism slows down. This is because our bodies are ingeniously programmed to protect against starvation—when your body senses that another meal may not be coming (even though food in our modern world is in abundance) it holds onto your body fat to use as energy.
When you only eat three times a day, your metabolism slows greatly between each meal. On the other hand, by eating consistently every three to four hours, your metabolism will stay elevated, knowing that another meal is coming soon.
An added benefit of eating every three hours is that you don't get hungry. By never getting hungry, you reduce the chances of overeating, or grabbing something quick and unhealthy just because it's there.
Eat real food
As opposed to what, fake food? Pretty much. When I say "real food" I mean food closest to its natural form: organic veggies, organic fruits, whole grains and organic free range lean meats and eggs.
The digestion process starts your mouth with an enzyme called salivary amylase contained in your saliva. Then your digestive system continues to break down food to use it as energy now, or store it as energy to use later. The digestive process is like a well-oiled machine with all the parts working in tandem. Processed foods are basically predigested, which wreaks havoc for our systems.
One easy example to illustrate this is instant versus regular oatmeal. To make traditional oatmeal into instant, a process strips a layer of fiber off of the oats—a layer that your body would otherwise strip off during digestion.
Stripping off this layer makes it faster to cook, but it also does some digesting for you. As I mentioned above, digesting burns calories, which increases your metabolism.
Of course, instant oatmeal isn't the worst thing in the world—but think of the processing involved in turning fruit into fruit snacks, potatoes into potato chips, and sugar cane and whole oats into cookies. All of these foods contain predigested ingredients, and by robbing your system of the chance to digest, you're robbing your metabolism of a boost.
Our busy lives don't always afford us the opportunity to have fresh foods, so processed foods are a part of our diet whether we like it or not.
But try to limit those processed foods to ones that will help your training, such as whey protein powder (where would we be without our whey?) or meal replacement protein bars. And when you dine out, always opt for foods as close to a natural state as possible.
Water is paramount to developing a lean, healthy physique. Not only is it a vehicle for flushing fat from your system, but it's also crucial for your bodies messaging system to fire correctly. And drinking water can actually raise your metabolism.
Being dehydrated can cause cravings, and tricks your mind into thinking you're hungry, rather than thirsty. Staying hydrated keeps your body balanced, and helps you become more in tune with your internal senses of need.
According to Kelly Cornell of the San Jose Nutritional Examiner, "this translates into less cravings and clearer messages for true hunger, all of which will help you lose weight."
But how does it raise your metabolism? A German study tested drinking water and energy expenditures on healthy subjects who weren't overweight. The researchers found that after drinking about "17 ounces of water, the subjects' metabolic rates—or the rate at which calories are burned—increased by 30% for both men and women. The increases occurred within 10 minutes of water consumption and reached a maximum after about 30 or 40 minutes."
Over a year, drinking an extra 1.5 liters a day burns around 17,400 calories, which adds up to about five pounds. While five pounds a year may sound like only a little amount, this adds up to 25 pounds in five years, or 50 pounds in 10 years!
The moral of the story is: drink more water. And if you train hard in the gym, drink even more.
Drink green tea
Drinking green tea is one of the easiest ways to rev up your metabolism. A study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that green tea-extract increases the metabolism by 4% over a 24 hour period.
Three to five cups a day can help you burn an extra 70 calories a day, which adds up to seven pounds a year, 35 pounds for five years and 70 pounds for 10 years.
Green tea has also been shown to inhibit fat absorption—the movement of glucose into fat cells, [support healthy] glucose levels after eating a meal, prevent insulin spikes which prevents fat storage, and reduce appetite.
Think three to five cups a day seems like a lot? Replace diet soda with my recipe for "green tea soda." Spoon instant green tea into sparkling water like Perrier or club soda and you have a refreshing, bubbly drink. It's great to get you through the 3:00pm slump, when you otherwise might reach for a soda or sugary snack.
When the cavemen stressed, it was because food was scarce. For them, feeling stressed was a good thing—it triggered a survival mechanism that slowed their metabolisms to save their precious body fat for energy.
Our bodies are the same as the cavemen's, except these days we stress out over crashing computers, lost cell phones, busy work schedules, or just in juggling day-to-day tasks.
We're lucky enough that even in the most stressful times, food is not scarce. However, the stress-induced survival mechanism that the cavemen experienced still functions in our bodies. This is why during periods of stress—non-food related stress—your metabolism drops.
I find yoga, meditation or even deep breathing to be great stress relievers. Sufficient sleep is also important for reducing stress, as is regular exercise. And supplements like St. John's Wort and 5-HTP can help to keep your spirits elevated (and, I've found, reduce cravings). In the end, don't let the little things stress you out—and let me say that they're all little things!
In sum, you are not a victim to a slow metabolism. By pushing your metabolism to a higher level, you can burn fat and reach your fitness goals sooner. Use these simple techniques to aid in your quest for a faster metabolism, and as a result, a fitter, slimmer body!
As always, I encourage any questions or comments on this article or any other I've written!