“I have a high metabolism.” It’s the infuriating explanation given with a coy shrug by every model, actress, and skinny friend who still shops in the juniors department despite shoveling burgers and pizza in her mouth every chance she gets. Do you also have a high threshold for pain? you may want to ask while gritting your teeth. But sadly, it’s true. Some people are genetically blessed with a high metabolism. Luckily, there are ways for the rest of us metabolic sloths to boost ours. It might not be enough to get you in a bikini before summer, but it will give you more energy and may help you whittle your waist.
What is your metabolism, anyway?
Metabolism is the name for the chemical processes by which living organisms stay alive. When we talk about metabolism, we’re talking about the amount of energy, in calories (yes, those calories), your body needs to maintain itself. These processes are twofold, constructive (synthesizing proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to store energy) and destructive (breaking down substances into energy and waste), and are happening all the time. Whether you’re in Zumba class or vegetating through the workday, you are metabolizing. It’s helpful to think of your body as a car and your metabolism as the Little Engine That Could. You put fuel (food) in and get energy out.
The answer to the question “Can you change your metabolism?” is really yes, and it’s also no. Your metabolism is dependent on three things. The first and largest thing is your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This is the amount of energy your body needs just to sustain your vital organs, like your heart, lungs, and kidneys. It’s the baseline—what the car needs to idle—and it’s responsible for about 60 to 75 percent of your metabolism. It’s also inherited and fairly stable. The other two factors, which can be fine-tuned, are exercise and digestion, both of which use energy. They’re like putting your foot on the accelerator.
The above is true for everyone, but there are other factors that influence an individual’s metabolism. You are not imagining that it’s easier for men to lose weight than it is for women. Between a man and a woman of the same weight, the man will burn more calories. That’s because men generally have more muscle and, because muscle requires more calories than fat, faster metabolisms. (Incidentally, this is also the reason they can drink you under the table: they’re metabolizing that alcohol faster.) Age is another factor. Along with wrinkles and light bladder leakage, a slower metabolism is something we have to look forward to after the age of about thirty, when we start to gradually lose muscle mass. So what can we do to keep our engines revving?
Five things to do and two things not to do:
First off, if you feel your metabolism is abnormally low—symptoms include fatigue, low blood pressure, feeling cold, and constipation—consult your doctor. It could be a sign of a medical condition, like hypothyroidism or diabetes, or a side effect of medication. But if you’re otherwise healthy or get the medical thumbs-up, do these five things and avoid doing these two other things:
Exercise. Jules Gennari, a certified personal trainer at Devocean Health & Fitness, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, recommends getting thirty to forty-five minutes of exercise four to five times a week. At least thirty minutes should be at your target heart rate (you can go to the American Heart Association website to find out what that is for you). As far as what kind of exercise you should be doing, “whatever you’re gonna do is what you should do,” says Gennari.
And include strength training. But while cardio, or aerobic, exercise will burn calories and boost your metabolism while you’re at it (and possibly for a short period after), weight or resistance training are what really kick-starts your metabolism. Anaerobic exercise builds lean muscle mass, which means that even when you’re resting, you’ll burn more calories.
Don’t diet. With all that exercise, you may actually become hungrier. Don’t deprive yourself. Your body doesn’t know you’re doing this willingly. It may believe it’s hungry because there is a shortage of food, leading your metabolism to drop in order to reserve energy stores. (Thank you, evolution.)
But eat well. Studies show that lean proteins aid in digestion and build muscle, while high-fiber fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates jog your metabolism more than simple carbs and fats do.
And eat regularly. Digestion raises metabolism, but you have to eat in order to digest, which is why Gennari and many nutritionists recommend eating a small meal every three or four hours.
Don’t take that pill. There’s no pill, powder, or magic juice that is going to raise your metabolism enough to be worth the insane heart rate, sky-rocketing blood pressure, and feeling of wanting to crawl out of your skin that come along with it.
Be patient. All of these processes are complicated. They won’t change over a day, a week, or even a month. It may take three months or more for you to notice a change in your metabolism. Give your body time to adjust.