You might’ve heard people talk about their metabolism and how it relates to their weight, maybe in statements like these:
“I never gain a pound – I guess I just have a high metabolism.”
“I keep gaining weight since I turned 40. My metabolism must have slowed down.”
But have you ever wondered what they meant by “metabolism” – and whether it really changes the older we get?
These are old questions given renewed focus by a big study published in Science. The findings suggest that we can’t rely on the old “slowing metabolism” excuse for middle-aged weight gain anymore. And plenty of research shows we can raise metabolism throughout life to improve health and manage weight.
First, Some Basics
What Is metabolism? In this context, we’re talking about the Basic Metabolic Rate to indicate how much energy your body uses every day to keep you alive. This includes things like walking, eating, and sleeping. (Yep, we burn a certain amount of energy even when at rest.)
Everyone’s metabolic rate is different. Factors like age, sex, weight, genetics, and lifestyle influence it. So, there are some things you can’t control about how many calories your body burns, but MANY THINGS you can control through lifestyle habits, including:
- Strength training. Exercise raises our metabolic rate, and strength training is particularly effective, whether you’re lifting weights or practicing yoga. We lose muscle as we age, so we need to keep working to keep it. Also, a body that has more muscle burns more energy than a body that has more fat, so the benefits perpetuate themselves.
- High-Intensity Interval Training. New research suggests that active agers should work up a good sweat rather than just leisurely strolling. During a HIIT workout, you go back and forth between working hard and taking it easy – say 40 seconds of jogging followed by 20 seconds of running.
- Research shows that drinking plenty of water throughout the day also raises our energy expenditures; our bodies warm up liquid to body temperature.
- Eat plenty of protein. Not only do you need it to keep enough muscle, but it also takes more energy to digest than carbohydrates or fats.
- Sleep and manage stress.
Lifestyle over Age
Conventional wisdom has held that metabolism slows down around age 40, and many of us have relied on that to rationalize midlife weight gain.
Instead, the new study says, our basic metabolic rate stays about the same from 20 to 60. The culprit for the common “middle-aged spread” is actually lifestyle changes.
Most of us slow down after 40, and then – unfortunately – continue to do less and less physical movement on a regular basis.
Instead, we should move more, incorporating short bursts of movement throughout the day, like a 60-second walk for every hour spent sitting at work. And we should be versatile in our workouts, including enough strength training AND aerobic training both.
Whether it happens at 40, 60, or later, your basic metabolic rate will slow down, and you’ll probably store more fat and lose muscle. But you have the power to lessen that through regular exercise and other lifestyle habits.
Other sources: WebMD, Harvard Medical School, CNN
Holly Kouvo is a personal trainer, functional aging specialist, senior fitness specialist, brain health trainer, writer, and speaker.