What is metabolism?

Metabolism or more accurately ‘metabolic rate’ is the process by which your body converts food into usable energy. It is the rate at which our bodies burn the calories or energy that we consume.

Some people have a faster metabolism than others, which would mean that they would burn calories and therefore energy faster than someone with a slower metabolism. Our metabolism often gets blamed for the reason we gain weight, or the reason we can’t maintain a healthy weight. To a certain extent our metabolism does have an effect on our ability to manage our weight, but ultimately the main reason that we gain weight is that we eat too much and move too little.

If you consume excessive calories, you will eventually gain weight. Each human body is designed to run on a certain calorie amount. This can vary from person to person, but generally speaking is between 1500 and 2500 calories for most adults. If you are trying to lose weight, it will be less.

How does metabolism work?

Many people hold the belief that fat people have a slow metabolism and skinny people have a fast metabolism. However, the process is not that simple.

Your metabolism depends on lots of different factors, and how it works affects how efficiently you burn calories. The trick is to get it as efficient as possible. Metabolism is determined by the amount of calories you consume, your age, gender, body composition, how physically active you are and the state of your health.

Think of your metabolism like your central heating system. You need fuel to get the boiler running, then you need to keep it well maintained and burning fuel efficiently to keep our homes warm and cosy. If you switch the boiler off overnight, and let everything go cold, it takes a long time in the morning when the heating comes back on, before everything is cosy and warm again.  Whereas if we had left it on, just on low ticking over, it would be producing heat all the time, and when we wanted to turn the heat up, it would happen a lot quicker.

This is how we want our metabolism to run, just ticking over all the time, so that when we need it to fire up and burn energy, it’s ready and waiting to efficiently carry out the job.

Manage your Metabolism

There are things that we can all do to make sure our metabolism is running at optimum all the time.

Muscle mass – Increasing our muscle mass gives our metabolism a boost, because muscle is more efficient at burning energy than fat, even at rest.  This is why men lose weight quicker, generally speaking, than women (sorry ladies!). Men tend to have a greater percentage of their body mass as muscle naturally, so therefore are more efficient at burning calories. Naturally, women have higher body fat percentages, because of where women naturally store fat – we are pre-disposed to store fat on our hips and breasts, so therefore even when we are at our leanest, men will have a higher percentage muscle mass than we can ever achieve naturally.

For both men and women to increase our muscle mass we need to build our muscles. We do this by undertaking weight bearing activity and exercise. Anything where were are jumping or bouncing, or the more traditional strength training like toning exercises or lifting weights, or functional fitness all help to tone and build our muscles, which in turn will speed up our metabolism.

Eating regularly – Eating food increases our metabolism for a few hours, so if we eat every few hours, rather than starving ourselves then bingeing, we are keeping our metabolism firing efficiently and burning our food, rather than letting it shut down by starving ourselves and then have to fire it up again, once we eat. This is called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).

Eating protein at every meal occasion – Protein causes the largest rise in TEF, as it is harder for the body to process, so essentially because it is a more complex macronutrient than fat and carbohydrate it takes the body more energy to burn it off, so therefore causes an increase in metabolism.  Protein foods include eggs, lean meats, pulses and low fat dairy foods such as 0%fat greek yogurt and low fat cottage cheese.

Drinking cold water – Drinking cold water increases your metabolism.  As your body works to bring it up to body temperature, it burns additional calories. A number of scientific studies have shown that drinking 500ml (or a pint) of water can increase your metabolic rate by 10-30% for about an hour after drinking, the greater increases are seen when drinking really cold water.

HIIT exercises – HIIT exercise is short bursts of intense exercise, where you are working your absolute hardest for a specified time, alternated with a short recovery period. A scientific study has shown that on average, participants in HIIT exercise sessions have a greater increase in their Resting Energy Expenditure, than participants in regular aerobic exercise.

As an aside, it also showed that they had greater decreases in their Respiratory Exchange Ratio (VO2 max) – which is a measure of cardio vascular fitness – the lower the number, the fitter you are. So HIIT not only increases your metabolism but it gets you fitter quicker too!

Spicy food – Eating spicy foods is known to increase your metabolism, due to a chemical called capsaicin in peppers. Eating food containing this chemical has been shown to increase calorie burn by up to 10 calories at each meal, containing those foods. However, whilst this may be seen as negligible, combined with the strategies mentioned above, will only add to the increases in metabolism, so if you like spicy food its worth a go.

Age – The one thing we can’t change is our age. And age sadly does affect our metabolism.  As we age, our metabolism slows down. This is why, as we get older, our calorie needs reduce.  This slowing in metabolism, can lead to “middle age spread”, if we don’t take action to burn those extra calories and kick our metabolism into high gear, but by adopting some of the ideas above, we can ward off nature for a little while longer.

Give it a go!

So, whilst our metabolism is something that we are born with, it doesn’t mean we can’t control it. I definitely think that my metabolism has improved since I have been following a healthier lifestyle, and probably because I have been doing all of the above. I do still put weight on when I over indulge, but I can get it off again, without feeling like it hangs around for ages. But this is because I never stop the healthy lifestyle for long, its usually only a day or two, or a week at the most, and it never stops completely. Even on holidays, whilst I might over indulge on puddings and treats, and maybe do less exercise, I still eat healthy main meals, with good quality protein, and lots of salads, drink plenty of water and still go for a couple of runs whilst I am away.  Hopefully that keeps my metabolism ticking over, and stopping it slowing down too much.

If you feel like your weight loss is sticking at present, have a go at some of the techniques above, there could be some changes that you can make, that might just give your metabolism the boost it needs to get fired up again.

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