How to Give Your Metabolism a Boost
Exercise, diet and sleep all play important roles
Every weekday, Tammy P.’s* alarm clock goes off at 3:30 a.m., signaling it’s time to sweat. The 60-year-old Miami-based executive and her husband hit their condo’s fitness center together, where she spends 30 minutes incline walking on the treadmill before heading into her office.
Once at her building, Tammy works out with a personal trainer in the gym for an hour before her actual workday begins. She does this three days a week. She also takes a weekly spin class, and she and her husband spend downtime exploring their city on foot, hoofing it up to seven miles most Saturdays.
Judging by Tammy’s supreme level of physical activity, you’d expect her to be very much in shape. And she is, although you wouldn’t know it from the outside. She’s been working to lose 60 pounds since she hit perimenopause in her early 40s.
"There's no exercise in the world that will make up for the calories we eat. It always has to be a combination of diet and exercise."
But no matter what healthy regimen she tries — including avoiding bread for years and, lately, trying the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet — the weight just won’t come off.
“It’s a battle,” says Tammy, who notes she was always fit and thin before she reached a certain age. She’s lost a few pounds on her current diet, yet not at the rate she’d like. “I just want the weight to be off me,” she says.
Tammy is not alone in her struggle. Many people who’ve been at a healthy weight their entire lives find themselves fighting to lose or keep off extra pounds in their 50s or 60s. The reason for this has a lot to do with metabolism.
How Metabolism Works
Metabolism is the body’s chemical process of converting calories into energy needed to maintain life, says Dr. Rami Lutfi, a board-certified surgeon specializing in bariatrics at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.
As Lutfi explains, people with a high metabolism, burn calories quickly; people with a low metabolism don’t process food as efficiently. When people consume more calories than they’re burning, their bodies store the remainder as fat, leading to weight gain.
Our resting metabolic rate, or how fast we burn calories while at rest, can be largely attributed to our DNA, Lutfi says. That means if your parents or grandparents were overweight, you have a higher risk of being overweight, too.
“It’s pretty magnificent to see the science behind it,” he says. “You may have a destiny you cannot escape, which is depressing to some.”
Does Metabolism Slow Down as We Age?
Contrary to popular belief, metabolism does not necessarily slow with age. “There is really no specific relationship between age and metabolism,” Lutfi says.
However, as we age, many indirect factors come into play. People in their 20s, 30s and 40s tend to be more active, he says, and, generally, people become more sedentary as they get older.
For women, including Tammy, perimenopause and menopause cause major hormonal changes that promote more fat storage and lower muscle mass — contributing to a slower metabolism.
Other Factors That Affect Metabolism
Dr. Romy Block, a board-certified specialist in endocrine and metabolism medicine in Skokie, Ill., says she sees a clear linear process between age and metabolism slowing down, even if they’re not directly linked.
One major factor that’s often overlooked is sleep, she notes. Hormones that regulate weight are usually produced in deep-wave sleep that occurs only when we get seven or eight hours of shut-eye.
“When you’re only getting five or six hours (of sleep) per night, you can short-change how your body speeds up its metabolism,” Block says. “We see a lot of patients doing all the right things, like exercising and eating well, yet they’re not getting credit for what they’re doing [in terms of losing weight], and that’s related to sleep.”
Smoking can also slow down your metabolism. “Everyone is afraid if they quit, they’re going to gain weight, but [quitting] is paramount in the long run,” Block says.
How to Boost Your Metabolism
Though your metabolism is not something you can completely control, there are things you can do to help speed it up. At the top of the list: Exercise.
“If you work out routinely and build more muscle mass, muscle burns calories [instead] of turning them into fat,” Lufti says.
In turn, your body burns more calories even at rest. When you combine greater muscle mass with physical exercise, the return you get will be even higher, Lufti says, because your tissues will be more efficient at burning calories overall.
Consuming more whole foods can also have an indirect impact on your metabolism. You’re more likely to want to exercise if you’re consuming nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and whole grains rather than processed foods, which can make you feel tired and lead to a cycle of cravings, Block says.
Tips for Losing Weight
- Try an app: A great place to start is with a fitness/diet tracking app, such as “Strava” or “MyFitnessPal.” These types of apps help you to monitor the factors that matter for your metabolism, like exercise, nutrition and sleep.
- Make small changes: Start with little changes in your habits, Block advises. Little things add up to big differences over time. For example, park far away from entrances so you have to walk farther, use the stairs rather than the elevator and take the time, say on Sundays, to prepare healthy lunches for your working week.
- Join a gym: If you’re able, join a gym where you can use cardio machines (such as a treadmill or elliptical) or swim, and build muscle mass through exercises using lightweight dumbbells or weighted machines, Lufti suggests.
- Go to bed earlier: Setting an earlier bedtime and sticking to it (try setting an alarm on your phone) is a small step you can take toward improving your sleep habits. If you struggle to fall asleep, Block recommends adding 10-minute meditation sessions before bed (of course, there are apps for this, too). Some people benefit from taking vitamins, such as magnesium or melatonin, to help them relax and fall asleep, but you should ask your doctor about these before trying them.
- Opt for the nutritious: When it comes to diet, make nutritionally smart choices, such as eating baked sweet potatoes rather than fries, or fruit rather than chips. And be mindful of portions. Lufti says the most common mistake he sees among seniors struggling with their weight is that they’re not paying attention to serving sizes.
It’s important to note that exercise alone will not help you lose weight -- your diet matters, too. “There’s no exercise in the world that will make up for [the calories] we eat,” Lufti says. “It always has to be a combination of diet and exercise.”
The Bottom Line
Don’t get discouraged. Plateaus are common in weight loss for many people, even if you’re doing everything right.
“Your body likes a set point; it’s a mechanism that has evolved to help humans survive during periods of starvation,” Lufti says. “You might lose the first 10 pounds quickly by reversing bad habits, but it will take a whole lot more to overcome your set point to lose the next 10.”
That’s why it’s better to make a series of small changes that you can live with in the long term than try every fad diet that comes along. In the end, no one diet is better than any other, Lufti says. It comes down to finding what works for you that you can sustain.
Recognizing that weight is not the sole measurement of health is also important.
While Tammy is frustrated by the number on the scale, she acknowledges her hard work is paying off in other ways.
“I’m not on medication, and I don’t have blood pressure issues,” she says. “I’m healthy, and while weight is a focus of mine, it's not my No. 1 priority.”
* She asked that we keep her last name private.