If you’re not in your 20’s any more, you likely know the feeling. All of a sudden, the same dietary habits that kept you lean up to this point are causing weight gain.
Perhaps it began after you graduated college. Perhaps it was after you had kids. Or perhaps it was when you hit your 40’s.
It can be frustrating to think you’re being healthy and active, and still see the pounds piling on each year. It’s enough to leave you searching for answers.
Is it your hormones?
Is something medically wrong?
Or is it a case of a “broken metabolism”?
To find this answer, let’s dive in and see what makes up your metabolism, and find out how to improve the situation.
A primer on metabolism
Your overall calorie maintenance is how many calories you burn each day. “CICO”, or “calories in, calories out” will determine if you lose weight, maintain your weight, or gain weight. This is a simplification, and there is nuance involved (which we will get to), but at its core, this is how it works.
Eat more than you need, and you gain weight.
Eat less than you need, and you lose weight.
There are a number of different categories your metabolic processes fall into.
Your Basal Metabolic Rate, or “BMR” is the number of calories you burn simply by existing. This is your “lay around in bed all day long and do nothing” calorie burn.
Your BMR is the largest chunk of your metabolism, at ~60% of your overall, daily calorie burn. There are a lot of factors that come into play here, such as your age, your gender, your height, your weight, and how much muscle mass you have on your body. Shorter women get the short end of the stick here due to having less muscle mass and height than their taller, male counterparts (and therefore, burning less calories naturally).
While this may not seem fair, it makes total sense. Think about it in terms of transportation. A small, compact sedan is going to have much better gas mileage than a large, lumbering F-350. They travel the same distance, but the truck requires more fuel for the trip.
The Thermal Effect Of Food, or “TEF” is the number of calories you burn by digesting your food. All calories have a TEF to them, as the digestive process requires energy to run efficiently.
On average, your TEF is ~10% of your overall calorie burn. This number can be manipulated a bit by eating ample protein, but even extra protein isn’t going to make a massive change in your calorie burn from food.
Your Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or “EAT” is the number of calories you burn via exercise. This number is directly related to how frequently you work out, and what kind of workouts you partake in.
Your EAT is ~15% of your overall calorie burn. Cardiovascular activities and high intensity circuits will burn more calories acutely than lifting weights. However, for long term fat loss maintenance, lifting weights edges out a strictly cardio-based regimen. Muscle is metabolically healthy, leads to a high quality of life, and protects you against falls as you age. Both resistance training and cardio are important; be sure to include them both in your fitness routine.
And finally, your Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or “NEAT” is the number of calories you burn via non-exercise activity. You move a lot over the course of the day (hopefully), not just when you’re working out.
On average, your NEAT is ~15% of your overall calorie burn. We burn calories all day long by going about our daily tasks. By walking. By grocery shopping. By doing our laundry, or vacuuming. Your job is closely correlated with your NEAT expenditure as well. Those with jobs that require them to be on their feet all day have a much higher NEAT than those with sedentary, desk jobs.
These 4 categories – your BMR, your TEF, your EAT, and your NEAT – all make up your overall metabolism.
So, now the real question… How do we boost each number?
And which category is the easiest to boost?
Feeling the burn
While it’s possible to boost each of the 4 categories above, doing so efficiently is another story.
To boost your basal metabolic rate, you only have 1 option: Gain muscle.
While this is a noble endeavor, and you should be lifting weights and trying to build muscle, the payoff from a metabolic perspective isn’t as much as you might think. Each pound of muscle you build will burn around 6 calories per day.
In order for this to make a substantial boost to your overall metabolism, you’d have to build a ton of muscle. A 20 pound muscle gain would only boost your BMR by about 120 calories per day. That’s roughly the calorie content in one, large apple. And it would take 3-5 years to build that much muscle naturally (for men – it would take even longer for women).
To boost your thermal effect of food, you only have 1 option: Eat more protein.
Protein is the macronutrient with the highest TEF. Up to 25% of the calories you eat via protein are used in the digestive process. But even though eating protein has a metabolic advantage, from a raw numbers lens, the difference isn’t that drastic…
If you currently eat 100 grams of protein per day (400 calories), you will burn 100 calories per day via protein’s TEF. Let’s say you double that number, and bump it up to 200 grams of protein per day. That’s a lot of protein, and a high number… you’ll be eating a lot of meat… and it will only provide an additional 100 calories burned.
To boost your exercise activity thermogenesis, you only have 1 option: Work out more.
On the surface, you may think this is your best option. If we want to burn more calories, we need to simply work out more, right?
Perhaps. But calorie burn from exercise is a lot lower than you think. An hour’s worth of cardio will burn roughly 500 calories. You can disregard what your Apple Watch, your FitBit, or the numbers on the elliptical are telling you. They’re wrong. Big time. (Studies show calorie trackers are off by nearly 100% – the number your tracker is telling you should be cut in half for an accurate idea of your calorie burn).
Plus, do you really have the time in your day to commit to 3 hours of working out? Not likely. You have a busy life with a career, and a family. You have responsibilities and things to do. It’s not feasible to spend half of your day in the gym, just to burn calories.
But now we get to the fun part… your non-exercise activity thermogenesis…
Remember how I told you your NEAT takes up roughly 15% of your daily energy expenditure?
That’s an average number.
For fidgety people who are always on their feet and moving throughout the day, their NEAT can be up to 50% of their daily calorie burn.
Read that again. It’s a shocking statistic. Let’s put it into real world numbers.
Let’s say you have an overall, daily maintenance of 2,000 calories.
This means your NEAT should be ~300 calories per day (15% of 2,000).
BUT, if you are an active person, who’s always “on the go” and moving, your NEAT could be as high as 1,700 calories. This would give you an overall, daily calorie burn of 3,400 calories per day. This is an astonishing difference in calorie burn. Burning 3,400 calories per day vs. 2,000 calories per day would make weight loss a piece of cake.
How do you increase your NEAT?
Admittedly, this is the tough part. Especially if you have a desk job. If you’re tied to a computer throughout the day, it can be difficult to find ways to move throughout the day.
We tell our fat loss clients to do everything they can to aim for 8k steps per day, minimum (10k per day is even better). This can be accomplished by about an hour’s worth of walking. Split it up into multiple 20 or 30 minute chunks if you have to. Or get a dog, which will force you to take Rover on regular, daily walks.
Here are some other ways to boost your NEAT:
- Get a standing desk or a treadmill desk for work.
- Pop in your AidPods and take walking meetings.
- Park far away from the front door to any stores you visit.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.
- Go on an after dinner walk instead of vegging out with Netflix.
- Physically go to the store to make your purchases instead of relying on the Amazon delivery guy (oh the horror!)
Seek out ways to move more throughout the day; it will pay off big dividends in your calorie burn.
But, I swear, I have a slow metabolism, Jason!
One, final thought for you.
Often, as we age, we think we have a metabolism “problem”. Weight gain over time can lead us to think something is wrong with us. And yes, there are some people who do have hormonal problems which can make it more difficult to stick to a diet, or have the energy to exercise. Consult with an endocrinologist to rule out possible issues if you think this is you.
But in reality, the vast majority of us are not outliers. There’s nothing metabolically wrong with us. We just tend to move less as we age. That truth may sting a bit, but a hard truth is more useful than a convenient lie.
A recent study showed that our metabolism is sky high when we’re growing, and it levels out at around age 20.
From age 20 to age 60, our BMR’s – the amount of calories we naturally burn – are unchanged.
Once we hit 60 years of age, our metabolism does start to slow down, but only at a rate of 0.7% per year. For someone with a 2,000 calorie maintenance, that equates to 14 calories. Not exactly a huge number.
Our metabolisms aren’t actually slowing down. We are. As we age, we forgo shooting hoops for sitting on the couch. Instead of dancing the night away at the club, we eat a fancy meal out. Social events are marred with alcoholic beverages, savory food, and tasty desserts. Followed by more drinks after dinner.
Combat this inactivity and seek out ways to move and burn more calories if you’d like to maintain a lean and healthy physique into your Golden Years.
Jason Helmes is a former Plymouth-Canton teacher who owns and operates Anyman Fitness out of his Canton home. Anyman Fitness is an online fitness coaching service that helps its clients reach their goals in a simple, straightforward manner. You can contact Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his site here for more information.