Guide to metabolism

There's a lot of information out there about what metabolism is and how it works – and some pieces of that information conflict with others.

We enlisted the help of Alessandro Alviani from Nordic Balance to explain exactly how your metabolism works, and how you can go about turbo-boosting it.

What exactly is metabolism?

You ready to concentrate deeply for a moment? Okay. Go.

Metabolism is the sum of the physical and chemical processes in an organism by which its material substance is produced, maintained, and destroyed, and by which energy is made available.

Basically, it's the entire chemical process that continuously occurs inside your body to allow everything to function as it should.

All metabolism processes are controlled by your hormones and nervous system, and are influenced by your age, gender, muscle-to-fat ratio, diet, physical activity and overall lifestyle.

The amount of calories you use up running all these processes each day is called total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), and it’s broken down as follow:

  • Around 60-70% of your energy expenditure goes on maintaining vital functions such as breathing, regulating your temperature, and keeping the heart beating – this is the BMR (basal metabolic rate).
  • Around 15-30% goes on daily activities (working, training, commuting, etc).
  • Around 10-15% is used up breaking down the food and assimilating it.

So: basic metabolic rate, daily activities and diet are therefore the three key factors that affect our total daily energy expenditure.

Now that we know what we're talking about, we can debunk the five biggest myths about metabolism!

Guide to metabolism

Myth #1: You're overweight because your metabolism is slow

Truth: If you are overweight, your metabolism is likely running fast, because the more weight you have, the harder your body has to work to carry itself around and avoid heat dispersion.

As a result, in most instances, the metabolism of an overweight individual runs faster than that of a skinnier person. So, apart from some rare metabolic diseases, it’s more likely that you’ll be overweight because you eat too much and exercise too little. 

Myth #2: Your metabolism slows down as you age

Truth: The primary reason the metabolism slows down as you grow older is because your hormone levels drop down and you lose muscle.

Don’t use your age as an excuse!

If you keep up with your training, sleep well and eat adequate levels of lean protein, vegetables and fruit, you will largely prevent hormone levels from falling and muscle mass being lost.

Don’t use your age as an excuse – it’s not uncommon to see a 50-year-old fitter than someone half their age, and you can bet that their metabolism is faster as well!

Myth #3: Long runs are the best form of exercise to speed up your metabolism and burn calories

Truth: If you consider that your body adapts in order to overcome hostilities and survive, why would someone who’s going to run and burn hundreds of calories each session need a higher metabolism as well? The reality is that steady-state aerobic exercises such as long runs cause a temporary increase in the energy expenditure, but as your body rebounds they actually slow the basal metabolic rate (BMR).

Strength exercises, meanwhile, may not burn many calories themselves, but by leading the body to build functional lean tissue they consistently rev up the metabolism. So it’s not aerobic exercises but a smart resistance-training programme that should be at the very top of anyone’s metabolism-boosting regime! 

Myth #4: A high metabolism is the best health goal

People with faster metabolisms show signs of cellular ageing faster

Truth: Higher is not necessarily better. It’s true that an ultra-fast metabolism allows you to eat more, recover faster, sleep less and generally live your life in a higher gear, but the downside is pretty obvious – people with faster metabolisms show signs of cellular ageing faster than people with slower metabolisms, and may be more likely to develop diseases sooner. Scientists think this is a major reason why women, holding other factors equal, so often outlive men.

Nobody is saying you should be spending your life sat watching TV in an attempt to slow down your metabolism, but do try to not get obsessed by having an ultra-fast metabolism and being envious of anyone who has one – all that glitters is not gold!

Myth #5: Metabolism is genetic; you have no control over it

Truth: Nope. You have full control over your metabolism!

Guide to metabolism

If you're keen to improve your metabolism, these simple tips will give you a kick start:

  1. Lead a more active lifestyle. Go by foot instead of taking the bus, cycle to work, walk up the stairs instead of using the lift, visit the shops instead of shopping online – just a few examples of activities that can impact your metabolism, substantially increasing your daily energy expenditure and fat-loss.
  2. Modify your workout routine. Alongside cardiovascular training, focus on building muscle through big compound body weight exercises (squats, press-ups, pull-ups etc.) and strength exercises. Swap some of your steady-state aerobic workouts (long runs etc) for high-intensity interval workouts.
  3. Sleep more.The amount of rest you get each night doesn’t only affect your mood and productivity the next day but it also affects your metabolism. Required sleep levels differ but as a general rule try not to sleep less than 6 hours per night, and ideally around 7-8 hours.
  4. Improve your breathing. The way we breathe affects our metabolism, since the amount of oxygen we make use of determines how many calories we burn. Make sure your breathing system is alright: learn the proper breathing basics and breathing exercises to increase metabolism.
  5. Drink enough water: Proper hydration is key to a fast metabolism, since all the metabolic processes require water. The amount a person needs to drink to avoid becoming dehydrated will vary depending on a range of factors, including their size, temperature and how active they are. As a general guideline, drink at least 30ml water per kg of bodyweight, per day.
  6. Get enough protein. It's been proven that those taking in adequate levels of protein have higher energy expenditure at rest. Make sure you get your portion of lean proteins alongside vegetables and fruit.
  7. Drink caffeine and theine. A cup of coffee or green tea may give you more than just an energy boost midday. One of the benefits of caffeine and theine consumption is a short-term rise in your metabolic rate that means a temporary higher caloric expenditure. Downside: they tend to dehydrate your body, so make sure you're drinking adequate quantities of water as well.
  8. Spice up your meals. Spicy foods have natural chemicals that can kick your metabolism into a higher gear. Cooking foods with a tablespoon of chopped red or green chili pepper is a good idea to boost your metabolic rate. The effect is temporary and not massive, but if you eat them often and combine with the previous tips, the benefits do add up!