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Whenever I mention the word metabolism most people’s ears perk up. It’s like they are about to be let in on a secret to a healthy and fit body that not everyone is privy to. You see, we’ve all got a human body that follows (when healthy) the same bodily processes, but there is a popularly held belief that having a fast metabolism is a genetic holy grail that allows us to eat and move any way we want without experiencing the consequences. There is so much more to our metabolism that its’ speed. Today we are going to talk about what our metabolism entails, what factors affect our metabolism and how to create a strong and healthy metabolism.
Our metabolism is a collection of all of the cell processes in our body, and can be thought of as the sum of all the actions our body takes. Whether we are moving, digesting, building muscle, converting food into energy and even thinking, every action requires energy from our body.
There are a number of factors that affect our metabolic rate or the speed that our body completes its’ daily functions. The goal is certainly not to have the fastest metabolism as possible, but rather a healthy metabolism that allows us to digest well, move properly and support healthy function. Our age, activity level, genetics, food choices, career, chores, daily habits and weekend excursions will all affect our metabolic rate.
Because I am a huge fan of giving you information that you can take and use in your daily life, we are going to focus on the four main factors that you can control when it comes to what your metabolism is responsible for each day. We cannot change our genetics, our age or even some of our careers (that quickly) so we will look at how to eat, move, think and live in a way that supports a strong metabolism.
The first step to identify is that not exercising at all is a big challenge for our metabolism. Yes we need to sweat, but are there more effective ways than others to craft a rockin’ metabolism. This is one of the main reasons I am a fan of strength training workouts that target big muscle groups. Think squats, lunges, chest presses, rows, pull-ups, pull-downs, rotational moves and lateral movement. The more muscles we engage in a workout, the more calories we burn and this factors into our metabolic rate at the end of the day.
Of course we burn calories when choosing cardio activities, but it is much easier to progressively overload our bodies safely and effectively with strength training first. Prioritizing muscle building activities is extremely important for women to maintain a healthy metabolism especially as we age and naturally lose muscle mass year after year.
Lift weights. Do multi-joint, multi-plane exercises. Prioritize strength training first, cardio training second.
The types of food we choose to eat obviously affect our body composition, but they also affect our metabolic rate? Yep. One of the biggest contributors to our daily metabolic rate is the thermic effect of food or the amount of calories our body burns when it is breaking down food, processing it and absorbing it into our blood stream.
The more ‘whole’ a food is when we eat it, the more work our body has to do to break it down. So choosing a apple over apple juice or a cup of quinoa over a piece of bread will cost our body more energy to break down and assimilate into our body for use later.
Diets low in fibre and low in protein are consistent with our digestive system having to do less work, thus having a lower metabolic rate. Choosing lots of vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins in whole form allow our body to go to work chewing, breaking down and spending the time needed to get our food into an state that it can be absorbed.
Have you ever had a job where you used a lot of mental energy to do your required tasks each day? Did you get home feeling completely exhausted?
When it comes to our metabolism we often place a ton of weight on the exercise we do and the foods we choose to eat. There are other factors that contribute to the amount of calories we burn each day, and our brain is one of the largest energy users we have.
How are we to change a factor such as ‘the amount we think each day’? This requires a commitment to a healthy life. Have meaningful conversations with your friends, do brain games at home, read books that challenge you, learn a new language or prioritize thinking as a healthy part of your metabolism.
This is where we talk about whether you walk to work or drive, whether you sit at a desk all day or add walking and low intensity exercise into your mid-day activities. Our daily lifestyle choices are what makes up a large part of a strong (or not) metabolism. Yes, the sweaty, breathless and muscle building activities are important (see Factor 2) but I love to ask my personal training clients ‘what do you do during the other 23 hours in the day?’ because this is often what shapes a lot of our metabolism.
The confusing part for many people is that our metabolism does not get faster and stronger by simply doing more, more, more exercise because exercise is also a stress on our body. After a while, we start to burn less calories from fat when our body is constantly put under stress.
Think of it like this: we need lots of movement and just the right amount of exercise for a healthy metabolism.
Mix in leisure walking, slow yoga, doing the stairs at your office after lunch, walking with a girlfriend rather than always going for a drink and doing low impact activities on the weekend to keep your body moving well and recovering properly from just the right amount of intense exercise.
While I’ve only touched on a few of the factors that affect our metabolism, this is a great place to start. Our metabolism truly is a complicated subject, and to simplify it to only four factors would be to miss the beauty that is our complex human body. As always, start where you are, do what you can and don’t let overwhelm stop you in your tracks. Keep learning and implementing because the more you know, the better you’ll do.