Yes, you really can boost your metabolism. Here's how.

Mike Stack from Applied Fitness Solutions breaks down the science of weight loss

By Michael E. Stack, Applied Fitness Solutions

If my last article on adaptive thermogenesis left you a little frightened that you may have caused irreparable harm to your metabolism, fear not -- you haven’t! The reality is, if you’ve done things to reduce your metabolism, you can definitely do things to increase it, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Most people view metabolism as a relatively static aspect of human biology, one which doesn’t change (unless it’s going down because of age) and one which we don’t have much control over. Metabolism is believed by many to be genetic. Those with a “fast” metabolism can eat cupcakes and still have a six-pack; those with a “slow” metabolism simply look at a cupcake and gain 3 pounds. The thought that your metabolism is as genetically predetermined as having brown eyes, or being left-handed, is just flat out wrong. We have as much control over our metabolism as we do over what clothes we wear and what kind of haircut we have. Indeed, the “speed” of your metabolism is your choice. If you’ve made it slow (no matter how you’ve done it), you can speed it up. 

You can make metabolism slow in many ways; in fact we’re pretty good at it as a society nowadays. I mentioned in my previous article about the slowing of metabolism due to calorie restriction. If you remember we talked further how severe and repeated calorie restriction can cause a significant reduction in metabolism due to a biological process referred to as adaptive thermogenesis. This is just one way metabolism can be reduced. Being inactive, eating mostly highly processed foods, and losing muscle tissue are all great ways to reduce metabolism. They are also things that are very much under our control.

What is Metabolism? 

We throw around the term metabolism all the time without an understanding of what it actually is. Before we start our discussion of how to increase metabolism, first let’s identify the different components:

  • Resting (or Basal) Metabolic Rate: this is the sum of all the energy requirements of all the tissues in your body to simply survive. Your heart, brain, lungs, and all the other organs and cells in the human body require energy to do their “thing” to contribute to us staying alive. This actually comprises the bulk of our metabolism (50-65% for most people). Incidentally, it is also the part of metabolism we believe to be most affected by adaptive thermogenesis.
  • Exercise Energy Expenditure: this is what you’d think it would be: the amount of calories burned during exercise. Surprisingly, this accounts for a small amount of our total energy expenditure on a daily basis (for most people, far less than 15%). PS…I am NOT saying here that because exercise is only a small part of the calorie burning puzzle that you shouldn’t do it. There are many benefits to exercise beyond calorie burning. Plus, the 300-700 extra calories we can burn from exercise on a given day can often make the difference between losing fat or not.
  • Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (or NEAT): this is the energy we expend to do the physical activities of daily life. Pretty much anything you can think of that requires movement that isn’t intense enough to be called exercise. Showering, eating, working, walking, cleaning, and so on all fall in the NEAT category.  If you think about it, this accounts for far more calories burned than actual exercise during the day. You have a finite amount of time to exercise, but you have nearly infinite amounts of time to do activities during your day that involve some extra calorie burning.
  • Dietary-Induced Thermogenesis: this sounds very scientific and fancy, but it’s a pretty simple concept to understand. This is the calories required to get the calories out of our food. For example, if an apple has 100 calories of energy in it, the body has to do some work to turn the apple into energy. The mechanism of digesting, absorbing, processing, and storing requires energy. On average, between 3-10% of the calories you burn on a given day is a result of this process. The variation exists largely based on what you eat.  Diets higher in highly refined/processed foods will be close to 3% since your body simply doesn’t need to work as hard to extract the calories from the food – the process that made it already did it for you. Diets higher in whole, non-processed, foods – particularly protein – will tend to be closer to the 10% end of the range. Your body simply has to work harder to get the calories out of those food sources.

Alright, so now that we know a little about metabolism we can use that knowledge to structure a plan to increase your metabolism to get you losing body fat. 

Raising Your Metabolism

The steps that follow are true for anyone, but especially those people who feel they may be affected by adaptive thermogenesis. For those of you who have that concern, before you go doing something crazy (like eating 400 calories per day), or something very hard (like trying to incrementally increase your calorie intake to “undo” the downward effect of adaptive thermogenesis), let’s look at some strategies to increase metabolism.  You’ll notice as we go through the strategies below, they effect ALL aspects of metabolism discussed above. The exciting part about that is your ENTIRE metabolism is under your control (at least I’m excited for you, because that means you can do something about it; I hope you’re excited – or at the very least hopeful – too).

Strategy #1: Increase NEAT by Moving More
This is a huge area of opportunity because there’s so many things you can do without much planning and effort. I’ll make the simple recommendation of increasing step count. Anyone looking to raise metabolism (to lose weight) should attempt to get in a minimum of 10,000 steps per day. Most phones have a step counter/pedometer built in, but if yours doesn’t you can find pedometers on Amazon for less than $10. There are nearly infinite ways to increase your step count; I’ll recommend a couple of my favorites. For those of you who work, walking meetings and phone calls (when you don’t have to be tied to a computer or a conferences room) are a great way to get things done and burn calories. Taking walk breaks during your day (around your office, around your house, etc.) can be a great way to break up the monotony of the day while you’re burning calories. The added bonus is that walk breaks will improve cognitive function as well as reduce anxiety and stress. My last suggestion involves just walking further. Park farther away from the entrance to the grocery store, always take the stairs, and walking a message over to a co-worker instead of emailing it are all great ways to get to that 10,000 step goal. Best part of all is that this activity is done at a low enough intensity that nearly all the calories burned come from fat!!

Strategy #2: Circuit Train 
In terms of exercise “bang for your buck,” nothing may be better than circuit training for raising your metabolism. Circuit training involves aspects of weight lifting with continuous movement. Think doing 30 seconds of squats, followed by 30 seconds of pushups, doing that combo five times, then resting and repeating. You’re stressing your muscles and your heart at the same time, and doing so causes a couple of cool things to happen. First, you build some muscle tissue. This increased muscle tissue helps to increase your resting metabolism. Second, you end up working out in an interval fashion (like my squat-pushup example); doing this greatly increases energy expenditure in the post-exercise period. In fact, circuit training has been shown to increase resting metabolism for 12-24 hours after exercise. Lastly, circuit training tends to be easy and fun to do, which means you’ll do it longer and more often. This will allow you to increase your exercise energy expenditure.

Strategy #3: Eat More Protein
This is not just the meathead in me talking. Protein has been demonstrated in countless research studies to increase calorie burning (via the dietary-induced thermogenesis mechanism I mentioned earlier). Also, contrary to popular belief, protein consumed in high quantities is not bad for you. There have been numerous research studies with ultra-high protein intake (higher than even the abnormal meathead would have) that show no decline in kidney or liver function. This strategy is simple: try to find 2-3 carbohydrate sources in your diet and replace them with protein. I am not advocating going keto, paleo, or low-carb in the least. We all have 2-3 refined carbohydrates in our diet we can replace with protein. Not only will doing so likely lower calorie intake, but it will also boost metabolism.

Where To Go From Here

If you think your metabolism is “slow” for any reason, try these strategies above, especially if you believe you’re dealing with some issues associated with downward adaptive thermogenesis. If you try them for one month I can nearly guarantee you’ll begin to increase your metabolism and start dropping body fat!

Michael Stack is an exercise physiologist and founder of Applied Fitness Solutions (AFS). AFS provides group fitness classes and personal wellness coaching at their three area locations: Ann Arbor, Rochester Hills, and Plymouth. Learn more about AFS.


This content was produced in collaboration with our sponsor, Applied Fitness Solutions, without involvement from the All About Ann Arbor editorial staff.

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