The question “how to increase one’s metabolism” came up in the context of a discussion with someone who felt that their calorie goal was far too low to consistently lose weight. That’s something that that many people (me included) often face. It’s more of an issue for women and shorter men, and unfortunately, shorter women have the worst of it. And it sucks. If you work a desk job and don’t get in much activity during the day, you may need to hit a calorie goal as low as bodyweight x 8. Having faced this myself, I know how badly that sucks. It’s terrible and it feels like suffering, and because of that, it’s not sustainable. Heck, I’ve seen cases where someone needs to go even lower, toward 6-7 x bodyweight. Please never do that on your own without guidance from a professional. So….what do we do about that?
Measuring your metabolism
If you were curious about your metabolism and wanted to get an idea of your calorie needs per day, there are lots of ways to do this. You can use a calculator that’s based on statistics and formulas (for example, https://tdeecalculator.net/ ), but like most statistic derived formulas, they are only estimations and of specious accuracy. If you wanted to get a more accurate measure there are some medical tests that you can have done. These aren’t without cost unless your healthcare covers them. Things like DEXA, a Bod Pod or an RMR breath test. I had both a Bod Pod and RMR test in August 2016. Below are my results. What this showed me was that if I just sat at my desk job all day, and didn’t move around often, that even with ~3 days of lifting weights per week, my maintenance calories were around 2100. As you may know, I don’t swear on the blog often, but holy shit that’s low for someone that’s 6ft 2in and usually around 220lbs. So if I want to lose weight, that means I have to choose between increasing my metabolism or eating at a super low-calorie amount.
Increasing Your Metabolism
Things you can’t control
When it comes to your metabolism, there are some factors that are simply beyond your control and the only thing that you can change in regard to them is your perception.
These uncontrollable factors are your genetics, your biological sex, your age, and your height. All of these matter for your metabolism.
Metabolism differences can be simplified as spendthrift vs thrifty. When we see someone that can eat whatever they like, are at what appears to us as a healthy body composition, and not gain weight, this seems unfair to us. But it’s possible that this person is genetically different in that when they take in extra calories, their body burns them off and/or changes their appetite in response. So if they go and grab a burger and fries for lunch, they are going to be fidgeting, bouncing around, and feeling warmer. They are burning those calories off rapidly. And they may only have a smaller meal later in the day…and thus maintaining calorie balance.
For me (and I’m guessing you, if you are reading this), if I went to 5 Guys (or whatever local burger place you have) for a burger and fries, I’d feel sluggish all afternoon, not want to move, and then still eat my normal sized dinner….and then be out of calorie balance.
Yeah, that’s not fair, is it? But comparison is the thief of joy. It wasn’t until I accepted this fact…that it IS unfair, that I was able to refocus my energy on the things that I *COULD* change.
Things you can control
OK, so you’ve accepted that there are things that you can’t control and that your time and energy are better spent on the things that you can control. Good for you!
Those things that contribute to your metabolism, that are within your control, are things like the amount of muscle that you have, the amount of body fat that you have, your diet and food choices, your stress and how you deal with it, your exercise activity levels, and lastly, your non-exercise activity levels.
As far as amounts of muscle and body fat, both muscle and fat tissues require energy. You’ll see crazy claims from quacks on talk shows stating that muscle burns 50 times more calories than fat! Or crap like fat doesn’t burn calories! Wrong wrong wrong.
Muscle’s metabolic rate per day is about 6 calories per pound per day, fat is about 2 calories per pound per day. Brain tissue burns 109 calories per pound per day. So work on reducing your body fat, increasing your muscle mass, and getting a bigger brain. 😉
Diet and Food Choices
One aspect that is most likely overlooked when weight loss is simplified to “eat less, move more” is the importance of your diet’s structure and your food choices.
Food choices matter because foods are processed differently by the body, specifically what the “cost” of digestion is. For example, with calories being equal in both cases, if you eat a higher protein diet, your calories burned side of the equation would be higher compared to eating the standard American diet.
Prioritizing whole foods with lots of lean protein sources, vegetables and fruits will help this aspect tremendously.
Secondly, when your calories get *too* low, your body may lower your non-exercise activity (more on that below).
It may be necessary to take scheduled diet breaks, and there are a few ways to do this. You could spend X number of weeks in a calorie deficit, and then take a 1-2 week break at “maintenance calories” to allow your hormones to normalize (as being in a calorie deficit for too long can throw things out of whack). I put X in there, as it really depends on the amount of fat you carry. The higher your body fat%, the longer you can go without a break.
You can also have higher calorie days around your strenuous workouts, and lower calorie days around your rest days. I’ve tried this before but it’s honestly a hassle to me, and I prefer to make things as easy as possible.
We often have this notion of what stress means, but it’s basically everything, both internal and external forces that act on us. Eating at a calorie deficit is a stress. Exercise is a stress (stress can be positive too). Watching the news is a stress. Too much caffeine is a stress, too much sugar is a stress. Even things we might not think of, like noise pollution, artificial light.
So what can we do to manage our stress?
- Check out the free trial of the app Headspace. It’s an easy way to get into meditation as a stress relief tool.
- Try to reduce some of the stressors when you can, so getting out of artificial light, cutting back on caffeine and sugar where possible.
- Spend some time outside, in nature. Or at least get some sunshine.
- Try some breathing techniques. Here’s a simple one. Push your tongue to the roof of your mouth really hard and hold it there. Close your eyes. Focus on that, and take big deep breaths. Do that for 10 seconds.
- If possible, break your work down into 25-minute chunks, followed by a short break. Use a timer or timer app. This is called the Pomodoro Technique.
- Bookend your day with rituals. By starting and ending your day the same way, every single day, no exceptions, you bring a sense of order to your life.
- Lastly, and most importantly (in my opinion): physical contact with another person or a pet. Hugs, not drugs, mmkay?
Exercise and Nonexercise Activity
Before I get into the details here, I want to caution you to not view exercise as a way to burn calories. Instead, I’d ask that you try to view exercise with the lens of how it positively adds to your life: it makes you feel better, helps you relieve stress, makes you stronger, makes you look better nekkid, etc.
So with that said, exercise here means anything that you schedule like weight lifting, running, sports, etc. Anything that estimates your calories burned likely way overestimates calories burned, so much so that I don’t recommend you adjust your weight loss calorie goals based on exercise.
For weight loss, 2 weights/resistance workouts and taking a brisk walk of 20-30 mins after a meal is a great place to get started. But don’t view it as burning calories, look for what it positively adds to your life.
The other side of the coin is NEAT or nonexercise active thermogenesis. This is a fancy-pants way of saying moving your body around that isn’t the aforementioned scheduled exercise. That’s it. That means walking around from place to place, tapping your feet, fidgeting, etc.
I like using a FitBit for this, not because 10,000 steps is some laudable goal, but because when I don’t actively make myself get up and move around, it shows me that I barely move 2000 steps due to being at a computer for my livelihood so many hours per day.
To increase your NEAT, some things you can try are:
- If possible, switch to a desk that does standing and sitting, not just standing OR sitting.
- Take an active break every 30 minutes, meaning just walk around, get something to drink, use the bathroom, etc.
- Take a walk after meals. If you can’t do that after every meal, make it a point to take a 15-minute walk after at least *one* meal.
- Any time you make a phone call, walk around, don’t stay seated. Worst case scenario, at least stand up.
Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Park farther away in the parking lot.
One last thing to mention in regard to NEAT, watch out for cases where you have a particularly grueling schedule exercise session, and that you feel so beat up afterward that you just want to lay around. This can negatively impact your ability and desire to be as active as you would normally be.
Chuck’s Example and Bite-Sized Tips
OK so to wrap this up, I’d like to provide my own example of how I am dealing with my low resting metabolic rate. Like I mentioned earlier, if I don’t pay attention to how much I’m moving around, I will barely crack 2k steps. That’s horrible. So using the suggestions I gave above, I aim for 8-10k steps. I do some form of scheduled exercise 7 days a week, but a few of those days are active rest like dynamic stretching and yoga so it barely accounts for 15 minutes of my time.
Because my FitBit reminds, I get up and move at least 250 steps every hour or more. I take phone calls standing/pacing, I never sit unless it’s required.
Those were all changes that were not easy but were much easier than the difficulty in lower calories below what I was comfortable doing. If I were to go back to being an active couch potato (meaning I had 3 hours of weightlifting a week…and nothing else), then losing weight for me would mean a really low-calorie goal. No thank you.
As a result of these changes, I’d estimate my maintenance calories much closer to ~2800, which is lots more manageable.
For your own changes, look for the things that would be the easiest to change first, and let those small changes add up over time!
If you have any suggestions for me to add or any questions, I’d love to hear them!