Tips to Live By

How to Boost Your Metabolism

Oct. 5, 2023 - Katie McCallum

Whether you're trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, chances are you've wondered about the role your metabolism plays in the process.

We all know someone who seems blessed with a fast metabolism, able to eat as much as they want while still staying slim. Then you have the opposite, people who eat the same amount but gain weight more easily. It can make you wonder whether we have any real control over our metabolism.

"A lot of it is genetically determined, so there is some truth to having a naturally fast or slow metabolism," says Dr. Laila Tabatabai, an endocrinologist at Houston Methodist. "But genetics is just one factor to consider."

Yes, Dr. Tabatabai says there's plenty you can do to help support a healthy metabolism. And the ways to do so might be simpler than you think.

What is metabolism?

Metabolism is the process of converting energy sources, like the food we eat, into the actual energy the body uses to carry out its extensive to-do list.

"Many vital functions need to be performed throughout the day, such as breathing, circulating blood, digestion, bone and muscle maintenance, body temperature regulation," says Dr. Tabatabai. "Performing all of these tasks actually requires a lot of energy."

How much exactly? That varies based on your individual basal metabolic rate — which is the minimum amount of energy your body needs to carry out its vital functions. It's why metabolism varies from person to person, too.

Factors that influence metabolism include:

  • Age – metabolic rate declines with increasing age
  • Amount of lean muscle mass – muscle burns more calories than fat
  • Activity level – the more physically active you are, the more energy your body needs
  • Nutrition – what and how much you eat can speed up or slow down metabolism
  • Hormones – levels of thyroid hormones, cortisol, insulin, leptin, ghrelin, testosterone, estrogen and more can impact metabolic rate
  • Certain medical conditions and medications – health issues like hypothyroidism can lead to slower metabolism, while others, such as hyperthyroidism and cystic fibrosis, can lead to a faster metabolism. Some medications, like antidepressants, can also slow metabolism.

Not all of these factors are modifiable, but some important ones are. It's why Dr. Tabatabai says most people should be able to harness their metabolism and achieve their weight loss or weight maintenance goals — even if they don't have a naturally fast metabolism.

For instance, someone who's postmenopausal has a very different metabolic rate than someone who's premenopausal.

"Postmenopausal patients have a slower metabolism due to loss of muscle mass and increase in fat mass due to declining estrogen levels and increasing age," explains Dr. Tabatabai. "But you can still control what you put into your body and how you move to help promote a healthy metabolism."

8 ways to increase your metabolism

Your metabolism has many inputs — some of which, like age, can't be changed. But all this means is that it's important to take control of what you can, so you can be sure you're not slowing your metabolism down any further.

Here are eight ways to boost your metabolism:

1. Get moving — throughout the day, every day

There are plenty of problems with sitting too much, a slower metabolism being one.

"So much of improving metabolism is understanding what it is you do with most of your time," says Dr. Tabatabai. "If you're sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day only to go home and sit in front of your TV for another two or three, that's certainly going to reduce your metabolic rate."

And Dr. Tabatabai points out that we're more sedentary now than ever before.

"The COVID-19 pandemic really decimated physical activity for a lot of people," says Dr. Tabatabai. "There's a good chunk of people who haven't gone back to their workout classes or other types of organized exercise, but even things as simple as walking through the grocery store every week has been replaced by the convenience of curbside pickup."

To make matters worse, Dr. Tabatabai adds that a lot of us consume more calories than we need. And, sure, some of this can be fixed by adjusting our food intake. But perhaps more importantly — in terms of promoting metabolism, at least — we must get back to making time to move every single day.

The recommended amount of physical activity is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every week. And to be successful long-term, it's critical to approach this goal as realistically as possible. (Related: What Counts As Moderate-Intensity Exercise?)

"Don't go and buy a bunch of expensive exercise equipment and expect it to magically make you fit," says Dr. Tabatabai. "What you need is a workout routine that's sustainable for you. Whether it's a 30-minute walk every day or something else, find something you can commit to and make the choice to be active every single day."

2. Eat a plant-based diet

First of all, it's not what you think — we promise.

Eating a mostly plant-based diet doesn't require you to go strictly vegetarian and give up meat. It simply means prioritizing plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plant-based sources of protein and fat. Meat, dairy and other animal products are allowed, they just shouldn't comprise the majority of your diet.

"We get so much nutrition and energy from eating plants," says Dr. Tabatabai. "Plant-based diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, are highly beneficial to metabolism because your body becomes more metabolically active after consuming high-fiber, high-liquid food sources — which is what plants are."

As an added bonus, these foods also help with satiety, filling us up faster and feeling full longer. This also makes a plant-based diet a great tool for weight loss and weight maintenance.

(Related: Everything You Need to Know About Plant-Based Diets, Including How to Get Started)

3. Build and maintain muscle

It's time to get more specific about how physical activity benefits your metabolism.

"Moving every day is better than not moving at all but when it comes to improving metabolism, the type of exercise matters," explains Dr. Tabatabai.

In the '80s, '90s and early 2000s, exercise was almost synonymous with cardio. Jazzercise, treadmills, elliptical machines — all have been championed by fitness enthusiasts as the ultimate way to burn calories.

"Aerobic exercise is certainly important for overall health, but we've been missing another key piece: anaerobic exercise," Dr. Tabatabai points out. "Challenging our small and large muscle fibers through strength training is critical for optimal metabolism. It helps build and maintain lean muscle, which is very metabolically active."

Keep in mind that strength training isn't limited to lifting weights and doesn't have to be intimidating. You can also do bodyweight exercises, such as resistance bands or calisthenics. The benefits don't stop with metabolism. Dr. Tabatabai notes that resistance training also promotes bone health, brain function and more.

(Related: Why You Should Be Strength Training At Least Twice a Week & How to Do It)

4. Limit processed foods

Whereas nutritious food sources can boost your metabolism, ultra-processed foods can slow it down. This may come as no surprise given how sluggish we feel after eating too much junk food or fast food.

"Our metabolic processes tie in very closely to what we eat, so the quality of the food you eat matters," says Dr. Tabatabai. "You should think of your body as the most expensive car you're ever going to drive. You have to really consider what you put into it and the overall upkeep."

Processed foods are almost always high in added sugars, saturated fats and/or refined carbohydrates. These foods are OK to enjoy now and then but they shouldn't be staples in your diet because, while your body can use them as sources of immediate energy, they offer nothing in terms of nutrition or metabolism. A diet high in processed foods can lead to all sorts of issues down the line.

"Processed foods are often high in carbohydrates and very calorie-dense, and consuming them stimulates an increase in insulin, which — as a storage hormone — promotes the storage of fat," explains Dr. Tabatabai. "Eating too much saturated and trans fat also leads to insulin resistance."

5. Add high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into you workout routine

Back (yet again) to exercise. Detect a theme here?

"What we've found is that high-intensity interval training — workouts that combine aerobic activity with quick bursts of anaerobic activity — increase metabolism most effectively and for the longest periods of time, as compared to just running or just weightlifting, for instance," Dr. Tabatabai explains. "The only issue with this type of workout is that, depending on fitness level or age, some of the popular formats, like CrossFit, can sometimes come with a higher risk of injury."

Dr. Tabatabai points out that older individuals shouldn't do anything that feels unnatural or painful — avoiding jumping or using heavier weights than you're comfortable with, for instance.

You can also design your own version of high-intensity interval training workouts yourself, based on your current fitness level. (Related: 5 Questions About HIIT Workouts, Answered)

"Maybe you're on the elliptical for five minutes and then you pop off and lift dumbbells for 90 seconds — repeating that process for 15-20 minutes," says Dr. Tabatabai. "The goal is to have some workouts that combine cardio and strength training, since those together really seem to increase metabolism the most."

6. Skip the calorie-restrictive diets

When it comes to optimal metabolism, regularly consuming more food than your body needs is certainly an issue. But crash dieting can lead to problems with metabolism, too.

"Starvation can shut off your metabolism, which is why we don't recommend diets based on extreme calorie restriction," says Dr. Tabatabai. "When your body senses it's being starved, it conserves energy — meaning your metabolism slows down."

Over time, this might even result in your body tapping into last-resort energy sources, like muscle, bone and even brain tissue. This further exacerbates the problem.

"A study looking at people who followed extremely restrictive diets as part of a popular TV series demonstrated that, yes, these participants could lose weight," says Dr. Tabatabai. "But what's disturbing is that these people not only regained this weight after the show, but almost every single time they got heavier than they had ever been. What the study found is that these crash diets led to the participants' body compositions completely shifting, to the point where they had very little metabolically active muscle — which is critical for weight maintenance and overall health."

Dr. Tabatabai adds that sarcopenia, the term for age-related muscle loss, is also linked to increased frailty, fall risk and fractures.

When it comes to losing weight, skip the trendy diets altogether and focus instead on eating in moderation and choosing plant-based foods as often as possible.

7. Prioritize sleep

The CDC recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night but also reports that between 30%-40% of adults say they get less than that.

"I think we tend to underestimate the importance of sleep," says Dr. Tabatabai. "It's not just beneficial for our immune system and brain health. A lack of sleep can really harm metabolism."

Sleep helps lower insulin levels, and well-balanced insulin levels promote optimal metabolism. Poor sleep can also affect how much energy you have to do the things that support a healthy metabolism, like working out and cooking a healthy dinner. As a result, perhaps you not only skip your workout but eat fast food for dinner and choose sugary beverages — all of which can contribute to a more sluggish metabolism if allowed to become a pattern over time.

"It works the other way around, too. When we're exercising regularly and eating nutritious foods, we tend to get better sleep and, therefore, promote a healthy metabolic rate," adds Dr. Tabatabai. "A lot of these systems impact one another."

(Related: QUIZ: Are These Afternoon & Evening Habits Ruining Your Sleep?)

8. Drink plenty of water

You might already know that maintaining adequate hydration helps your brain, heart and digestive system function optimally. You can add supporting your metabolism to that list.

Part of the reason for this is that muscle becomes less metabolically active when you're dehydrated. Furthermore, lipolysis (fat burning) decreases when fluid intake decreases. Drinking water can help reduce appetite and prevent overeating, as dehydration and thirst signals are often confused with hunger signals.

"Every single system in the body is sensitive to fluid intake, and metabolism is no exception," says Dr. Tabatabai. "Water is essential for metabolism. The human body is 60% water, so we really are what we eat — and drink."

(Related: How Much Water Should You Drink In a Day?)

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Categories: Tips to Live By