Turn Up the Burn
Last winter I put on a few extra pounds. No biggie — I do it every year. The weight usually comes off in the spring once I stop chowing down on pasta and bread and shift my outdoor running program into high gear. But this year the scale refused to budge. At all.
"Maybe your metabolism is slowing," a friend suggested. She had a point; I was in my thirties, which is when scientists say the ebb usually starts. Yikes! How could I rev it back up and drop the flab? Here's what I learned to turn up the burn — and how you can do it too.
The M Factor
Metabolism sounds mysterious and complicated, but it's actually pretty simple: It's the amount of energy (aka calories) our bodies need daily. About 70 percent of those calories are used for basic functions, such as breathing and blood circulation, says Rochelle Goldsmith, PhD, director of the Exercise Physiology Lab at Columbia University Medical Center. Another 20 percent is fuel for physical activity, including working out, fidgeting, walking, and even holding our bodies upright while standing. The remaining 10 percent helps us digest what we eat (it's true; eating burns calories!). The trouble begins when you consume more calories than your body needs to do these things: That's when you pack on the pounds.
You can partly thank your parents for the speed of your metabolism. Genes contribute to the levels of appetite-control hormones we have floating around in our bodies, Goldsmith explains. "Some people are genetically programmed to be active; they're naturally restless and use more energy," she says. Those are the lucky high-metabolism types.
Gender also plays a role. "The average man's metabolism is about 10 to 15 percent higher than a woman's," Goldsmith notes. That's mainly because men have more muscle mass than women do, which means they burn more calories. "Muscle does the work to help you move, while fat just sits there," says John Porcari, PhD, a FITNESS advisory board member and director of the clinical exercise physiology program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Not only that, but women's bodies are designed to hold on to body fat in case of pregnancy.
The good news is, you can make your metabolism faster, experts say, despite genetics and gender. These are the 10 simple secrets to boosting it big-time.
Part 1: Get Moving!
1. Exercise more often.
Working out is the number-one way to keep your furnace cranking. The more lean muscle you have, the more calories you burn all day. That's because muscle uses energy even when you're resting. Exercise enough and you can help prevent the natural metabolic slowdown that can begin as early as your late twenties, according to Goldsmith.
Your amp-it-up game plan: five workouts a week. "Do three days of aerobic activity and two days of weight lifting," advises Shawn Talbott, PhD, an exercise physiologist, nutritional biochemist, and the executive producer of Killer at Large, a documentary about the U.S. obesity epidemic.
2. Kick up your cardio.
Aerobic intervals will help you maximize your burn, doubling the number of calories you torch during a workout, studies show. Intervals also keep your metabolic rate higher than a steady-pace routine does for as long as an hour after you stop exercising, according to Michele Olson, PhD, a FITNESS advisory board member and professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama. That means you could blast as many as 65 additional calories after your sweat session. The ideal metabolism-boosting interval routine is to "go hard for a couple of minutes, then take it down to an easier pace for a minute or two, and keep alternating like that throughout your workout," Talbott says.
Just pick your cardio carefully. Aim for exercises that require your body to work its hardest by using a lot of muscle groups, Talbott says. That means running is better than cycling. Or try a cardio circuit. "Do a variety of activities — like running stadium stairs, jumping rope, and squat thrusts — for two minutes each, aiming for a total of 10 minutes," Olson says. "That will really rock your metabolism."
3. Put some muscle behind it.
Too many women steer clear of weight machines, fearing that they'll bulk up. Or they work only their legs and skip their arms. Don't make this mistake. A head-to-toe strength routine will turbocharge your calorie-blasting quotient. Add five pounds of muscle to your body and you can zap as many as 600 calories an hour during your workout, Olson says. Be sure to choose a weight-lifting routine that targets your core, legs, arms, chest, and shoulders; challenging numerous muscles will help your body function like a calorie-burning machine, according to Goldsmith.
Part 2: Eat Your Way Slim
4. Don't skip meals.
We know you're superbusy, but make sure you grab lunch. "Simply chewing, digesting and absorbing food kicks your metabolism into gear," says Jim White, RD, a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
"The more frequently you eat, the more often it revs up." Conversely, missing a meal, or going too long between meals, brings your metabolism to a crawl. "Your body switches into starvation mode and your system slows down to conserve energy," White explains. Keep your engine humming by having three healthy meals of 300 to 400 calories and two snacks of 200 to 300 calories every day, he advises.
5. Fill up on smart foods.
Start by serving yourself protein at every sitting, says Darwin Deen, MD, medical professor in the department of community health and social medicine at City College of New York and a coauthor of Nutrition for Life. Not only does your body need it to help build lean muscle mass, but protein also takes more calories to digest. To get your fix, have low-fat yogurt at breakfast, chicken in your salad at lunch, and salmon for dinner. Between meals, snack on protein-rich walnuts. They contain omega-3 fatty acids, which help promote weight loss by increasing your feelings of fullness, according to a recent study in the journal Appetite.
While you're at it, eat more foods that slowly release the sugar you need for sustained energy, like high-fiber fruits and veggies and whole-grain breads and pastas. Munch a food high in fiber three hours before your workout and you'll also burn extra fat, a study at the University of Nottingham in England found. Sipping java can also help. "Caffeine stimulates the production of adrenaline, which speeds up the metabolism," White says. Research shows that caffeine can significantly accelerate your burn. Just limit yourself to no more than two cups a day; too much caffeine can overtax your system, resulting, ironically, in fatigue.
6. Eat breakfast.
It will switch your metabolism from idle to high speed. That's because your level of cortisol, a hormone that helps you use calories to build muscle, is highest just before you get up in the morning. When you eat an a.m. meal, your body is primed to turn those calories into muscle pronto — the only time during the day this happens. Take advantage of the natural torching process by having a healthy breakfast of scrambled eggs, low-fat turkey bacon, and a piece of whole-grain toast.
Part 3: Small Changes, Big Results
7. Get off your butt.
Sitting too much — at the computer at work, at home in front of the TV — slows your metabolism, even if you're exercising regularly. An easy fix is to stretch, stroll, and fidget throughout the day. That's what scientists call NEAT, or nonexercise activity thermogenesis, and it can boost your burn and help you drop weight, says James Levine, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and author of Move a Little, Lose a Lot. The proof: In a study of lean volunteers who were fed extra calories, those who paced frequently, for example, maintained their weight, while the people who did no additional walking got chubbier. If you take advantage of every opportunity to walk and climb stairs, it can make a big difference. "A woman who needs to lose weight would have to burn about 190 to 200 extra calories a day to lose 10 percent of her body weight, which you can do by increasing your overall activity level," Goldsmith says. "Try striding around your house or office when you're on the phone, standing up at your desk whenever you can, and walking to your coworker's cube instead of e-mailing her."
8. Go to bed earlier.
Deprive yourself of sleep and your body starts to respond as if it were under siege. "When you get two hours less shut-eye than you normally do, your system becomes stressed and produces about 50 percent more cortisol," Talbott says. "That in turn triggers your appetite."
At the same time, lack of zzz's throws the body's hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin out of whack, making you more likely to overeat. Skimp on pillow time for too long and you could be facing a serious weight problem, says Michael Breus, PhD, author of Good Night: The Sleep Doctor's 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health. In a 16-year study of sleep-deprived women published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that those who slept seven to eight hours a night had the lowest risk for major weight gain, while women who got six hours a night were 12 percent more likely to pile on a significant number of pounds, and those who logged five hours or less were 32 percent more likely to gain weight.
9. Schedule a nighttime workout.
Do a 20- to 30-minute moderate-intensity cardio routine before you hit the hay to keep your metabolism humming all night, Porcari says. The average woman's metabolic rate naturally decreases by about 15 percent while she sleeps, but an end-of-day sweat session will make the drop closer to 5 percent, he explains. So take the dog for an evening walk or go for a bike ride with your family after dinner. And don't worry that the activity will keep you awake: As long as you exercise at least two and a half hours before lights out, you should be able to drift off with no problem, Breus says.
10. Check your meds.
Some of the most dramatic metabolic dips occur when women start taking birth control pills and widely prescribed antidepressants known as serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. "These drugs commonly slow the metabolism because they affect the functioning of the thyroid gland, which regulates how our bodies use energy," says Kent Holtorf, MD, a thyroidologist and the founder of the National Academy of Hypothyroidism. Depo-Provera, a contraceptive that's injected every three months, seems to cause the most weight gain. "It's high in the hormone progestin, which stimulates insulin secretion, leading to increased appetite and a lowered metabolism," Dr. Holtorf explains. "It also signals the body to store fat." (Oral contraceptives, which contain less progestin, aren't as problematic.) If you've recently started taking any new medication and the scale is inching upward, ask your doc if there's an alternative treatment that is less likely to cause weight gain.
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Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July/August 2010.