Anyone who’s dieted before knows the truth: it’s hard. While losing weight is often broken down into an all-too-simplistic “calories in vs. calories out,” it can often seem like no matter what you do, the scale won’t budge. Now, a new study is shedding some light on why it’s so tough for some bodies to shed extra pounds.
Published this week in the medical journal Obesity, the study found that changes in a person’s basal metabolic rate (BMR) or resting metabolic rate (RMR) — essentially, the number of calories you burn at rest (such as sitting or lying down) for an entire day — have quite a bit to do with both how people lose weight and how easily it is to keep the pounds off. (1)
Obesity now affects more than one-third of American adults and is a factor in people developing diabetes, hypertension and other diseases. (2) While scientists are learning more about obesity and how to treat it as a chronic disease that requires life-long management, it’s also becoming clearer that the odds are stacked against people who struggle with weight loss … by their own bodies.
Though it’s long been known that a person’s metabolism slows when they diet as the body tries to keep the person at his or her old weight, this new study, which followed former contestants of popular TV program “The Biggest Loser,” discovered that a dieter’s slowed-down metabolism doesn’t bounce back when they stop dieting.
In fact, after six years, the former contestants’ metabolisms hadn’t returned to pre-TV show levels, even if they were no longer dieting or had remained at a lower weight. It was as though their bodies were trying to prevent them from keeping the weight off. Their body’s biology and their basal metabolic rate was fighting against their weight loss goals.
“Tell Me More About My Metabolism”
The word “metabolism” gets thrown around so often in the health and fitness space that we sometimes lose sight of what it means.
Metabolism is the process your body undertakes to convert food and drink into energy. The calories in what you eat and drink are combined with oxygen to allow your body to perform the functions it needs to keep you alive and well, because even if you’re lying in bed doing nothing, your body requires energy for things like breathing and blood circulation.
In most people, about 70 percent of all energy expended is actually through this basal metabolic rate – yes, that means even if you exercise for hours a day, working out accounts for just 10–30 percent of the calories your body burns on a daily basis. (3) So the higher your BMR, the more calories your body burns even when it’s not being active.
But for reasons still unknown to researchers, each body seems to have a “magic weight,” a number that the body doesn’t have trouble maintaining and feels comfortable settling at. When someone tries to deviate from that weight – by restricting calories, for instance – the body fights back to keep that magic number.
In cases of weight loss, this happens by slowing the BMR down, effectively reducing the amount of calories the body burns when at rest. (4) For some of the former Biggest Loser contestants featured in the study, their BMR was hundreds of calories fewer than what would be expected for someone of the same size, some by several hundred calories a day.
For someone whose RMR is 500 calories lower than what’s average for their size, for instance, they’d have to reduce their food intake by 500 calories or burn it through exercise just to get past that initial deficit. When you consider that running one mile burns about 100 calories, a person with a lower-than-average RMR would have to run 5 miles just to make up for a slower metabolism. At about a 10-minute mile, that’s nearly an hour a day of exercise.
What Slows Down Your Metabolism + How to Speed It Up Again
Of course, contestants from “The Biggest Loser” are losing quite a bit of weight in a short amount of time; some drop hundreds of pounds over the course of the show. For the average Joe or Jane trying to lose those last 10 to 15 pounds, their basal metabolic rate might not slow down quite as much – but it still might not be at optimal levels. That’s because there are a variety of other factors that can cause your metabolism to slow things down.
Let’s take a look at certain metabolism problems many of us encounter, and then I’ll reveal some life-changing ways to boost your metabolism.
The Problem: You’re getting older
Your metabolism naturally slows as you age. After the age of about 25, it’s estimated that your metabolism drops as you age, around 2–3 percent each decade.
The Solution: Keep active!
A 2001 study found that RMRs were about the same between older and younger men who had similar exercise volume and food intake. (5) Making sure you get some physical activity in each day will go a long way toward keeping your metabolism running.
The Problem: You’re not sleeping enough
If you consistently find yourself skimping on sleep, you might be setting yourself up for failure when it comes to raising your RMR. When your body doesn’t get enough rest, your metabolism will actually slow down to conserve energy.
The Solution: Simple, sleep more!
Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night, including weekends. Catching enough zz’s will also help keep your hormones that can contribute to weight gain, at healthy levels. Having trouble sleeping? Try one – or all – of these 20 strategies to fall asleep fast.
The Problem: You don’t strength train
Even if you’re at a normal weight, if you lack muscle, your RMR could be lower than you’d like. It’s harder for your body to maintain muscle mass than fat, so the more muscle you have, the more calories are being burned, even while at rest.
The Solution: Uh, strength train!
Start adding strength training to your workout sessions to ensure your metabolism is working hard long after you are. Too many dieters think that lifting weights will put on unwanted bulk, but in my experience, as long as you keep your repetition range above 10 (well outside of the powerlifting zone), you’ll only get fitter … not bigger.
Also, keep in mind that strength training gives your metabolism a bump for 48–72 hours (!) compared to just two hours for a cardio workout.
The Problem: You’re not working out hard enough
The more intense an exercise is, the longer it takes the body to recover, which means your metabolism is working harder than when you exercise at a moderate level.
The Solution: Try HIIT
Start adding high-intensity interval training or HIIT workouts to your rotation. Not only do these burst workouts kickstart your metabolism and keep it going after you’ve finished working out, but because you give ‘em all you’ve got, they’re shorter in length, perfect for busy people.
The Problem: You’re eating foods that are killing your metabolism
I call foods like fruit juice, canola oil and artificial sweeteners metabolism death foods because your body classifies them as toxins and, along with slowing down your metabolism, they can cause other unintended weight-gain consequences like thyroid dysfunction and hormone imbalance.
The Solution: Chow down on unprocessed, whole foods
Choose quality protein like grass-fed beef, raw dairy, cage-free eggs and wild-caught fish to give that basal metabolic rate an extra boost. Try stashing some of these 50 high-protein snacks to boost your metabolism in your bag for a nibble on the go.
Although our bodies are designed to lower RMR when we try to lose pounds or maintain a healthy weight, we can take natural, healthy steps to counteract biology and speed up our metabolism.
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