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Four Sensible Ways to Boost Your Metabolism

 

Who doesn’t wish they could burn calories like a fat-burning machine?  We’ve all probably noticed how much more easily we gain weight than we used to—especially after a holiday or a weekend of eating out at restaurants. And we’ve all definitely become aware of how hard it can be to lose those few extra pounds that creep up on us year after year. 

Chalk it up to metabolism, dear listeners.  Your metabolism—the rate at which you burn calories--is a key player in your weight control efforts.  Genetics and hormones partly determine your metabolism, but even then your metabolism is not set in stone; there are many things you can do to help alter your metabolic rate, no matter your age or your weight history.  It will take work on your part, but with commitment and planning, you should see the results you have always hoped for. 

 

Metabolism 101

In the most basic terms, your metabolism is the rate at which you burn calories, and it is mostly determined by your muscle-to-fat ratio, or body composition.  The more muscle and less fat you have, the higher your metabolism and the more calories you burn at rest, at work, and at play. That is because muscle burns more calories than fat. 

Body composition is a major factor in determining how many calories your body requires to perform basic energy needs, like breathing and staying warm when you are idle (also known as your basal metabolic rate, or BMR).  Your age is another important factor in determining your basal metabolic rate because muscle loss, hormonal changes and decreased activity levels are all factors in aging.  Growing children and adolescents have higher calorie needs per pound of body weight than adults.  Men have higher BMRs than women, because they are naturally more muscular and they tend to weigh more than women.  The more you weigh, the more calories you burn moving your body. 

BMR represents about 60% of your body’s total calorie needs.  The rest of your energy requirements come from digesting food (about 10%) and physical activity (variable, depending on how active you are).  Genetics can also be a factor in your BMR, as some families tend to be leaner than others.

As an adult, you have probably noticed a change in your metabolism that can be attributed to several different factors.  As you age, your body naturally loses muscle mass, which causes your metabolism to slow down.  If you diet and lose weight too quickly, you also lose muscle mass.  If you then gain weight back after going off your diet you will gain fat, effectively making your metabolism much slower than it was before you went on the diet.  That means it takes fewer calories to maintain your weight than it did before you lost it and regained it.  Gaining fat in general will alter your metabolism, since carrying more fat alters the all-important muscle-to-fat ratio. 

 

So how can you Maximize Your Metabolism?

Age-related muscle loss, yo-yo dieting and weight gain are common metabolism-busting scenarios, but they do not have to be your reality.  There are several effective strategies you can use to boost or repair a sub-optimal metabolism: 


1. Emphasize exercise

I know you’ve heard this before, but you need to exercise.  Remember that I mentioned that exercise contributes a variable amount of calorie burning to your metabolic rate?  Well, exercise will be the key to your success, since you control the variable based on the type, time and intensity of the activity you choose.  At the very minimum, you need to maintain your muscle mass as you lose weight or as you age.  The way to do this is by using your muscles. 

A fitness routine that incorporates either weight training or resistance training, like pilates and some forms of yoga, with cardiovascular exercise is optimal.  You do not need to lift big heavy weights or become a body builder, but you do need to spend about 30 minutes twice a week concentrating on using your muscles.  Don’t think you have the time?  The plain and simple truth about muscles is if you don’t use them, you lose them.  An average woman in her forties who devotes 60-80 minutes a week to muscle building can increase her BMR by 100 calories a day.

Cardiovascular exercise is important for burning calories and aiding in weight loss and weight maintenance. 

Another option is to incorporate intervals into your exercise routine.  Interval training is one of the best ways to boost your metabolism and burn more calories and fat. 

However, you should be aware that both of these types of workouts can increase your appetite and cause you to eat more calories than you burn.

Perhaps one of the greatest metabolism-boosting benefits of exercise is the afterburn.  Studies show that physical activity raises your BMR by 20-30% for several hours after you exercise.  The more intense your workout, the longer the afterburn lasts.


2. Dump your Diet

Diets don’t work.  In fact, if you’ve ever been on the on-a-diet/off-a-diet roller coaster, chances are your metabolism is a lot slower now than it was before you went on your first diet.  Eating too few calories can reset your metabolism so that your body will find ways to lower your BMR as a survival strategy. 

The best way to lose weight is to do it slowly, not drastically.  Start by making small, healthy changes in your diet, rather than huge, sweeping changes.  Losing one to two pounds a week is optimal (a calorie deficit of 500-1000 calories a day); anything more than that likely means that you are losing muscle mass and slowing down your metabolism.  Losing weight too quickly will also increase the likelihood of regaining it.  Very low calorie diets (those under 1,200 calories a day) are considered extreme and dangerous because you are likely consuming fewer calories than your BMR requires.

 

3. Stop Skipping Meals

Skipping meals actually lowers your BMR by putting your body into starvation mode.  If you usually skip breakfast, you may be going without food for 17 hours!  At some point, your body will break down its own tissue (muscle and fat stores) for energy.  When you finally eat something, your body will store it rather than burn it because it doesn’t know when you will feed it again.  On top of that, if you skip a meal, you will be more likely to eat more at your next meal than if you had eaten your skipped meal, and more calories mean more fat is stored. 

Breakfast is perhaps the most important meal you can eat, since it sets the tone for the entire day.  Studies show that eating breakfast shortly after waking up can raise your BMR by as much as 10%.  Eating a good balanced breakfast, such as slow-cooking oats with nuts, berries and milk or soy milk, can aid in weight loss and maintenance and help prevent diabetes and obesity. 

Eating at regular intervals throughout the day and not skipping meals – for instance, eating three meals and two snacks or five mini meals during the day – will support a consistent calorie burn, help you lose weight and boost your metabolic rate.  The key to eating small frequent meals, is to make them balanced with protein, fat and minimally processed carbohydrates.  (Cookies don’t count as mini-meals--they’re a treat.)  Eating balanced meals will help control your blood sugar levels and therefore help prevent fat storage.  An example of a balanced “mini” dinner might be three ounces of salmon, half of an orange-fleshed sweet potato, and one cup of steamed broccoli and cauliflower.  For a larger meal, increase your salmon by two ounces and add two cups of salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing. 

Some people call eating mini meals grazing.  Although the term “grazing” is often used to describe this style of eating small, frequent meals, keep in mind that you are not a cow, nor do you want to be.  Even if what you are eating is a small portion, you must eat it mindfully while sitting at a table with a plate, utensils and a napkin.  An energy bar that you eat in the car on your way to work does not fit my criteria for being wholesome or eating a proper meal.


4. Pay Attention to the Little Details

I have already covered the most significant strategies for boosting your metabolism, but there are some additional ways to pack a little extra punch into your plan.  You may not see big results from incorporating these suggestions, but every little bit counts.

Drinking green tea (decaf or regular) can boost the rate at which you burn calories.  The major antioxidant in green tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), may help you burn a little more fat when you drink just three cups a day.

Adding spices to your food can also help you burn a few extra calories.  Natural spices such as chili pepper (fresh, dried or powdered), black pepper and ginger can raise your body temperature slightly so that you burn slightly more calories (and possibly fat) when you eat them.

Getting adequate sleep is also helpful for stoking your metabolism.  Studies show that sleep deprivation can alter hormones that affect carbohydrate metabolism, fat storage and aging.  Plus, when you’re exhausted, it’s harder to motivate yourself to exercise or make good food choices.  And sleeping more means there are fewer waking hours in which you can eat, so you save calories by not being awake.  A recent study also showed that eating all of your meals within a 12 hour window is best for weight control and metabolism.

There are plenty of products and magical potions out there that claim to boost your metabolism and burn fat while you sleep, but the truth is, they’re more likely to burn your money than your fat.  Don’t fall victim to the quick fix!  I’ve talked about several different angles from which you can approach boosting your metabolism.  My advice is to pick one, try it out, and then gradually add the second, and then the third.  The goal is to incorporate all of these strategies into your lifestyle to keep yourself healthier, stronger and slimmer for the rest of your life.

 

Questions

Q: Can you give examples of calorie-burning cardio exercises that are considered intense and moderate?

A: More intense exercises, such as running, playing basketball and cross-country skiing, burn more calories per minute than less intense exercises, such as walking, swimming and playing tennis.  You can make up for this discrepancy by doing less intense exercises for a longer duration and doing them more frequently.

 

Q: can you talk more about what interval training is?

A: Interval training is when you alternate short bursts of low-intensity activity (90-120 seconds) with shorter bursts of high-intensity activity (60 seconds).  For example, jog for five minutes to warm up, then sprint for one minute, then jog for one and a half minutes, sprint for one minute, jog for one and a half minutes, etc.; repeat a total of five times during your workout.

 

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