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How to Increase Metabolism: Myths and Truths

rowing workout

The simple answer for how to increase metabolism is:

  • Step 1: Get enough sleep
  • Step 2: Lift weights
  • Step 3: Eat enough calories
  • Step 4: Work movement into your day
  • Step 5: Do not over exercise

When weight loss seems to be stalled or difficult it is super tempting to just blame it all on the ol’ slow metabolism. 

Sometimes, this is the case. You’ve really slowed down your metabolism by doing all of the wrong things because you were told they were the right things.

The idea of exercising more and eating less in order to lose weight is pretty much a gold standard in people’s minds.

People take this far too literally and cut calories drastically right away and add a bunch of cardio for weight loss. After doing this for a while, your metabolism will definitely slow down.

But, does this mean you have a damaged metabolism? 

What is a damaged metabolism? 

How do you increase metabolism? 

What does it mean to have a high metabolism?

We will dive into all of this using the best scientific knowledge in this area. Not just lab results and isolated short term studies. Actual real-life application as well as biological facts that will uncover for you what metabolism is and how to increase metabolism.

What is the Definition of Metabolism

dumbbell grapefruit tape measure and weights

The boring technical definition of metabolism is that it is the enzyme-activated processes in animals of:

  • Converting food into energy to regulate cellular processes
  • Turning food into building blocks for some carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids, and proteins
  • Elimination of nitrogenous wastes

Really, the definition of metabolism that you are really looking for is this:

  • The thing that seems to unfairly let some people eat whatever they want and stay slim
  • The thing that seems to cause weight gain if I sniff a cupcake

Your metabolism rate is a tricky beast. 

It is a very well-tuned and highly sensitive machine that has adapted over millions of years. It doesn’t really care if for the last minuscule fraction of our existence we have had free access to highly palatable, high-calorie food. 

Metabolism’s primary goal is to protect us from famine and to help us live long enough to reproduce.

It’s all about passing down those genes.

How to Increase Metabolism

woman skipping rope exercise in winter outside

Your metabolism is designed to protect you from too little fuel for whatever your activity demands of you.

This means that if you diet hard by cutting calories and you increase your exercise, your metabolism works just as hard to adjust.

Your metabolism rate will slow, thinking it’s doing you fantastic favour by protecting you from being hungry, tired, or even starving to death.

To increase metabolism, you need to make it feel safe and warm.

Your metabolism just wants to do right by you, but it has poor communication skills when it comes to your goals. It can only go by the physiological signals you send it.

So, you need to send your metabolism signals that keep it running at top speed. 

You want to avoid it slowing down to protect you from lack of fuel. It does this by making you more efficient at preserving energy – not a good thing when energy (food) is plentiful. 

The way to do this is not complicated, but it is contrary to everything you probably believe about fat loss:

  • Stop the endless cardio
  • Give up restricting calories and food groups
  • Lift weights like you want to gain muscle and not “tone” (there’s no such thing as “toning” a muscle)
  • Don’t lose weight (yet)

Okay, this might be where I lose you. But hold up! If you want to get rid of fat for good, this is absolutely the way to do it. 

The first thing you need to do to increase your metabolism do is baby it. Make it feel safe and send it signals to build instead of slow down and decrease.

Metabolism has only two reaction types:

  • Anabolism – building up
  • Catabolism – breaking down

What you absolutely want is anabolism.

When your metabolism is anabolic, you are sending the signal to use energy to build muscle. If you are catabolic, you send a message that you need to preserve energy to become more efficient at using your calories.

If you are anabolic, you can eat much more and build full, rounded, firm body parts while avoiding fat gain and even shedding fat.

When I say don’t lose weight, I do not mean, don’t lose fat. This will almost surely happen as you build muscle. Your body will do something called recomposition. 

The amount of lean mass you have will increase while the amount of fat mass you have will decrease. The scale may not budge. You have to be okay with that.

For more info than your body has room for regarding exercise routines check out The Ultimate Guide to Choosing A New Workout Routine.

How to Tell if You Have a Damaged Metabolism

tired woman exercising

The entire idea of a damaged metabolism is flawed. 

Although a slow metabolism is very real, this is actually your metabolism working exactly how it is supposed to.

As we talked about above, your metabolisms’ job is to protect you from famine and using energy at a higher rate than you are taking in. 

This makes losing weight very tough sometimes. Especially if you are trying to force it off by eating less while exercising more. 

Sending your metabolism the signal that you need to become more efficient means that your metabolism will react accordingly. It will send messages to specific hormones telling them to down-regulate and preserve energy. 

This will also cause catabolization (break down) of your muscle mass.

Muscle mass is metabolically active tissue, meaning it burns calories just by being itself. Fat, on the other hand, does not. When you lose muscle, you lower your metabolism even further.

This is a perfect storm for what people call a “damaged metabolism.” 

It isn’t damaged, it’s doing the job it evolved to do.

More often than not, people just do not move enough and overeat. Most people move less than they think and eat more than they think. Numerous studies have shown this.

If your metabolism has slowed because of yo-yo dieting, chronic undereating, and overexercising — you have gotten yourself into a difficult situation. It will be tough not to gain weight, let alone lose any.

Your metabolism will sacrifice your long term health to keep you alive. Studies performed on prisoners of war have shown that humans can survive on extremely little food just to stay alive. 

If you perform a lot of cardio and eat less and less trying to work off the weight, you will end up in a difficult situation. 

If you eat over your new, minimal-calorie threshold, or stop the excessive exercise, you will balloon up. This is often the case for people when they go on vacations after losing weight in this way.

Moreover, when you under consume calories, you under absorb nutrients. This can cause further metabolic issues. Not fueling yourself well will cause health issues and fatigue that make movement less likely. 

When you eventually gain fall off the wagon or start regaining the weight, you will be in a state of very low (ie, efficient) metabolism, undernourished, with muscle loss. Losing weight after this point will be incredibly difficult and unhealthy.

The only remedy for this is as discussed previously:

  • Start strength training to send the right hormonal signals
  • Stop the cardio
  • Do not restrict food groups like carbs (no keto)
  • Start eating nutritious, well-balanced meals
  • Add in more calories slowly to fuel your workouts
  • Be patient – this will take *months*, not weeks to fix

How to Increase Metabolism if You Can't Work Out as Much

woman working out and sweating from increase metabolism

Sometimes even if you have a solid workout routine, you cannot keep up with the volume or frequency of your workouts. 

If you need to reduce your time spent exercising, what should you do to keep metabolism high?

In a word: strength training.
Place your focus on strength training, building muscle, and keeping your body anabolic.

You may also have to adjust your caloric intake, but, this will most likely happen naturally as you decrease your workouts.

Many times, if you’ve been exercising at a healthy rate, your metabolism and calorie intake will adjust naturally. You might find yourself doing more activity that is not technically considered a workout. 

Activities such as walking, fidgeting, moving around more, having the energy to go play with your kids or pet, dance, run errands, etc.

This type of activity is called NEAT — Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. 

It is all of the unplanned extra calorie-burning activity you perform day in an day out. It accounts for a small portion of your overall calorie burn, but it is often the decider between burning more or less than you need for weight maintenance.

Increasing your NEAT is a fantastic, natural way to burn more calories. NEAT will not cause your metabolism to adjust and become more efficient (slow) as traditional cardio sessions will.

So, if you are lacking time for workouts, focus on strength training. Build in natural movement to your day, and if you perform cardio, use it as a recuperative, active rest day instead of a full out cardio session.

What is Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and Should I Care?

lift weights to increase metabolism deadlift

Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories your body burns at rest, every day, without activity. 

This is just the amount of calories your body uses to keep you alive. Your BMR represents about 60 percent of your daily calorie expenditure. 

How much you burn depends on your genetics, body weight, age, sex, body composition (muscle mass, fat mass, etc.), and bacteria in your gut.

It is also called resting metabolic rate (RMR).

This number changes from person to person and varies from day-to-day. It changes often and quickly. Using a formula to try and nail down your exact BMR is pretty much pointless.

Your BMR is a moving target, trying to build a weight loss, weight gain, or maintenance plan based on a BMR formula is pointless.

A better idea is to be aware of what you are eating to maintain your current weight. What are your activity level and your current intake? Get a general idea of this and add or subtract to produce the desired changes. 

Other things that can influence BMR  to lower or increase metabolism are:

  • Stress
  • Inflammation
  • Gut issues
  • Nutrition
  • Sleep
  • Food intolerances

Food intolerances can impact your metabolic rate and change your BMR. Your liver dumps glycogen when there is inflammation due to gut issues. 

In essence, trying to calculate your BMR is needless and unhelpful. It can add confusion to a process that should be more straightforward and personalized.

Pay attention to how your body changes and feels rather than to numbers and formulas.

Is There a Body Weight Metabolism Set Point? Can it Change?

woman on scale with tape measure

As you can tell from the above section on BMR, metabolism can change often and quickly.

The idea of a body weight set point, however, is a common question. People often find that their body seems to fluctuate around a narrow weight window and no matter what they do, they end up back at that weight.

In a sense, you do have a body weight set point, but it is not due to your body having a “natural” weight that it is destined to remain at.

Most importantly — your body weight set point is never at obesity or unhealthy weight levels.

A set point, if you had one, would be healthy. It would be lean but not shredded, muscular, but not overly so.

If you find that your body tends towards an unhealthy weight than you are confusing unhealthy behaviours and habits with biology. Your current routines, patterns, and lifestyle keep you at this weight, not your biology.

If you are stuck at a certain unhealthy weight despite dieting and exercising, then you may have induced a slow metabolism. Your body may think that your current 200lb+ low-calorie body is healthy. 

In this case, see the section about how to increase metabolism above. Yo-yo dieting can even increase the number of fat cells you have, making a bad situation even worse.

All you need to do to manipulate your body weight set point and increase metabolism is to adjust your habits.

Change how you eat, think, and move. Your body will adapt to this new stimulus.

Can Your Metabolism Change with Age?

increase metabolism as aging by strength training

Most metabolic changes that occur with age are due to a loss of muscle mass.

Previously, authorities have claimed that muscle loss occurs naturally as we age, and this causes slow metabolism and weight gain as we get older.

A lot of research currently conflicts with this old theory. It has been shown that if you keep fit and active by building muscle through strength training, you can counteract the effects of muscle loss that comes with age.

It is never too late, in fact. Strength training, even just to maintain muscle, is hugely beneficial as we age. It will prevent falls and injuries, keep up mobile, and able to look after ourselves and even increase metabolism as we get older.

Are There Metabolism Boosting Foods?

protein foods to increase metabolism

The idea of foods that boost metabolism is a great money-making opportunity. 

Fat bombs and coconut oil can hack fat loss, protein powders that burn calories, teas that flush toxins and fat. It’s all marketing.

The bottom line is that the calories burned from digestion only account for 5 to 10 percent of your total calorie burn.

Calories burned due to digestion is called the Thermic Effect of Eating (TEE). Digestion is an active metabolic process and uses energy to complete. 

The type of food that uses the most calories to digest is protein. Protein is very thermogenic, taking more energy than other foods to digest.

I have written an informative post on protein, so if you would like to learn more about this effect, read The Ultimate Guide to Protein. 

Thermic Effect of Eating (TEE)

  • Protein = 20 to 30 percent
  • Carbohydrates = 5 to 6 percent
  • Fats = 3 percent

Besides this, your body will use more calories, digesting whole foods that are minimally processed than it will with processed foods. Even protein powders, which are often marketed as metabolism boosters are processed foods

In fact, whey protein is very easily digestible and so, being processed and digested quickly, will not increase metabolism like chicken breast or salmon will.

There are some foods that help with weight loss and foods that boost metabolism inadvertently, however:

  • Green tea
  • Nuts
  • Fibrous fruits and vegetables
  • Omega-3 rich fats, EPA and DHA from fatty fish
  • Hot chili peppers

Please keep in mind that these foods will not indeed provide enough of an increase in metabolism to cause weight loss on their own.

(Read more: 13 Easy Ways You Can Clean Up Your Diet Today)

Is There a Best Diet for Metabolism?

woman eating healthy diet

This is discussed above but let’s dig a little deeper.

To increase metabolism, your diet must support your strength training routine and your daily activity (NEAT). 

So, instead of thinking of foods that boost metabolism, think about how your diet can help you increase your energy to strength train and move throughout the day.

Diet for Fast Metabolism:

  • Plenty of protein (see my Protein Guide for more info)
  • Hydration
  • Fiber
  • Whole, minimally processed foods
  • Healthy fats like EPA and DHA which have been shown to help burn an extra 400+ calories per day
  • Enough carbohydrates to maintain energy for strength training (see my guide on Carbs)
  • Enough calories to support your activity — remember, too few calories will cause a slow metabolism (efficient)
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