If internet ads were an exercise in advertising honesty, you probably wouldn’t read further than this paragraph – you’d be too busy sipping metabolism-boosting tea after consuming your meal supplement, and knocking back weight-loss pills before your metabolism slows to a perfectly unacceptable rate of normal. But this is the real world, and no quick-fix is going to magically supercharge your metabolic processes and have you dropping kilos like old boyfriends. If only it were that easy! Instead, you need to think about energy.
We tend to think of metabolism as the rate at which we burn calories, but in physiologically terms, it’s just the sum total of all the chemical changes in your body at any given time. Many of these processes require energy, which means you are burning fuel even as you sleep. But how does your behaviour and lifestyle affect the amount of energy you burn in total? A good starting point is a simple equation: Energy in minus energy out equals net loss or gain of energy. Of course, it’s not quite as straightforward as that, but it’s close enough to be valuable for our purposes. Most of us would like to tweak these numbers a little to at least balance them out, but how can we do that without going hungry or running marathons?
Firstly, you don’t need to be told how to eat. You’ve presumably been doing it for years, and your tastes and preferences are only subject to so much change. If you’re a meat and potatoes kind of eater, a garden salad with grilled fish is probably something you’ll suffer through in extenuating circumstances. For a gourmet cook who uses only the freshest produce, you may have nightmares about fast food drive-throughs. So let’s accept that you can only reform your habits to some degree, notwithstanding those incredible individuals who flick a switch and permanently swap excess and indulgence for total restraint. Who are those people, anyway?
There are a few foods that can cheat the energy equation, but their overall impact is pretty minimal. Oolong and white tea, chillies and caffeine can all burn extra energy, but you’re only talking small amounts – tens of calories rather than hundreds. If the average female burns 1800 calories in a day without exercise, and a male burns 2200 calories, this is a tiny number in the scheme of things.
The one factor that does have a measurable impact on our metabolic rate is our muscle mass. The greater the number of muscle cells we have in our body, the more energy they require to function. This doesn’t mean slaving away in the gym next to bodybuilders each day. In fact, two or three good sessions of lifting and pushing each week are a perfect way to start. Just increase the weight of the amount of resistance gradually so you’re constantly setting a challenge. You really don’t even need to leave the home, either – a chair or a bench will provide a stable surface for dips, lifts, push-ups and squats. Of course, the very process of building muscle mass uses energy, so what you’re really doing is extending the benefits of your workout.
A common complaint of people who are trying to lose weight is that they have a slow metabolism. This may be the case, and certainly hypothyroidism is a medical condition that is characterised by sluggish metabolic processes, but an otherwise healthy individual will burn MORE energy per kilogram. If you think about it, the more weight you carry, the harder your body must work to do the same activities as a lighter person. A person who struggles to control their weight despite their efforts may be disadvantaging themselves with yo-yo diets, prolonged periods of hunger and eventual overeating. All the effort goes to the energy-in side of the equation instead of gently tackling both sides gradually and consistently.
In an interview with a Japanese centenarian regarding the secrets to a long and healthy life, a reporter asked the elderly woman to offer some advice to others. She replied “stay a little bit hungry and a little bit cold”. While that might sound terribly uncomfortable, your body temperature can have an impact on your energy usage. Just by staying slightly cool, your muscles will compensate and try to generate heat.
If you want to boost the “energy out” side of the equation just a little each day, but don’t have the time to visit a running track or take to the stairmaster, try these small modifications to your lifestyle.
- Walk or ride to public transport each day. If you drive all the way to work, park three or four blocks away and enjoy the fresh air in between.
- Conduct standing meetings and conversations. Stand as much as you possibly can. You will burn significantly more calories just by remaining upright.
- Never pick up the phone if you can walk across a floor or to another level to discuss work. Avoid the lift!
- Start you morning and end your day with gentle stretches. Not only will they wake you up, but they will also relax you and help you to think about the impact you are having on your body for the rest of the day.
Remember, never punish your body. Treat it with kindness, and remember that health is paramount – not the clothes you can wear or how you look beside your friends. For more actionable, healthy living tips, be sure check out our health guides and bookmark this site.
Lego image: flickr.com/Nick Royer