Are you working out consistently but not losing any weight? Can the reason be attributed to a “broken” metabolism? We often hear a lot of trendy buzz-phrases on metabolism such as “I need to kickstart my metabolism” or “I have a slow metabolism”, but what does this even mean? This article sets out to answer the questions: what is metabolism? How does it work? Can a good metabolism help you to lose weight and become healthy? How can we measure our metabolism, and, can you boost your metabolism to help you lose weight and stay healthy?
What is metabolism?
Metabolism is the process by which your body stays alive. It’s a reflection of numerous, intricate processes and chemical pathways that use energy in order to help you think, move, sleep, digest and much more. One way to visualise what a metabolism is to imagine it as one of the complex aerial images that we see at traffic jams on busy, multilayer highways. Metabolism, in the very simple sense, is organised chaos. It’s therefore easy to assume that if you’re unable to lose weight, this highly complex system is broken. However, your metabolism never stays the same; it is an adaptive beast – it adapts to your life choices, your environment, is shaped by your genetics and can change day to day.
Metabolism 101: How it works (And why it matters)
Here are a few key concepts that come into play while discussing metabolism. Understanding these can help you to link your weight with metabolism.
- Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR): Resting metabolic rate is the number of calories you burn at rest. This accounts for almost 60% of your total calorie burning.
- Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): Did you know that you burn calories while you eat? Yes, eating is a process which requires energy. So, eating can burn some calories. It is interesting to note that some macronutrients burn more calories during the digestion process than the others.
- Physical Activity: It includes all the purposeful activities that you do in the day such as working out. It takes in account the calories that you burn by sweating.
- Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): It includes all the excess moves you do during your day such as fidgeting, walking around, moving, adjusting your legs and so on.
Calories, Metabolism, and your ability to lose weight
When we talk about exercise and fitness, we often come across a term called ‘calories’. This term is also used when speaking of your metabolism. What is a calorie? A calorie is the amount of energy used to heat 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. To find out how many calories an item of food contains, researchers burn a piece of food in a closed container to check the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of water by 1 degree Celsius. Because you intake calories through your food consumption and burn them via your daily activities, there is something called an “Energy Balance Equation” – which is an incredibly simple concept. The acronym for the concept is CICO (Calories-in, Calories-out).
CICO is about creating a balance in calories. When we are out of balance, it leads to two other scenarios called calorie ‘surplus’ and calorie ‘deficit’. When we take-in extra calories than what the body can burn in a day, we are in a calorie surplus. On the other hand, when we take-in less calories than what our body can burn, we are in a calorie deficit. When your body is in a state of surplus, those extra calories are stored as fat. When your body is in a state of deficit, the calories you consume are used up and there is nothing remaining to store.
How can we measure metabolism?
The right question to ask is how many calories do you need in a day to maintain a balanced CICO? The answer differs from person to person. How many calories your body requires and how it uses them is dependent on a number of factors such as body’s size, intensity of workout, amount of muscles, genes, epigenetics, hormones and more. As mentioned above, it can change daily, or with your life choices and your environment. It’s hard (and extremely expensive) to determine our exact calorie needs, but we can get a rough estimate by using online calculators or activity trackers that require you to input data and register your workouts.
It is important to note that these technologies have some margin of error. Workout studies have shown that there’s a range of 9-23% error, both plus and minus, in an activity tracker. That’s quite a lot of error! This may mean that your workout sessions may not be quite as intense as you thought, or you could burn more without knowing. These tracking apps are not precisely built to guide a person in a customized way. For example, it cannot produce results based on the complexity of your body. No matter how advanced the tech is, it cannot account for every single small chemical process that makes your metabolism unique to you.
Similarly, a calorie tracker cannot precisely report the calories found in the food that you eat. Results vary when the food is raw versus cooked, fresh versus stale and others. Fruits and vegetables will vary in calories depending on when they were picked, their exact size, and so much more. Therefore, the calorie amount in a range of 10 apples will all be different from the next!
The Verdict on Counters:
Taking into account this discrepancy of logging calories through our activity trackers and calorie counters, it’s easy to believe that we are in a calorie deficit and should be losing weight, when in actuality, we may be eating more or burning less without realising it. This doesn’t mean that your metabolism is broken, it just means we don’t have the precise means to adequately measure and monitor everyone’s unique metabolic rate. However, this doesn’t mean that calorie counters and activity trackers aren’t useful tools. These tools can help bring awareness to your daily needs and motivate you to make positive changes in your lifestyle. The caution is only to use the trackers as they were meant, as general tools, not as precise measurements.
Related story: What It Means To Count Your Macros
Boost your metabolism with these tips
- Sleep well. Sleep deprivation, even for one single night, can impact your calorie burn by 20%. So, put down your laptops and mobiles at night, shut off your light and get some sleep.
- Move around as much as you can. For example, walk around in the room when you are on the phone.
- Help carry the groceries by yourself. It can act as weight-lifting.
- Take the stairs and avoid using lift (unless you are injured or medically unfit).
- Take regular breaks from your desk. Keep your body in motion.
- Prioritize your protein and fiber intake. These take longer to digest than the other foods.
- Eat according to your portion sizes rather than relying on calorie trackers.
- Learn to make informed choices about your food.
- Get some exercise! Cardiovascular activity (walking, jogging, cycling, etc) can have a fantastic calorie burn in the session, however, resistance training can enable you to burn calories at a higher rate for the remainder of the day. Mix both cardiovascular and resistance training into your week.
Related story: 7 Easy Ways To Get Yourself Moving
By doing all these, you achieve in doing your bit to rep-up your metabolism. Good metabolism supports fitness goals, and a fit life leads to a healthy, happy one!
Jen Thomas is a London-based muscle trainer, pre and post-natal exercise expert, and a nutrition coach.