Called your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the number of calories that you burn just to stay alive accounts for 60 to 75% of your total daily calorie burn, according to a review in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Your BMR is driven by many different variables, and most of them are beyond your control (think: sex, age, and height). The main determinant of BMR is lean body mass, which includes weight not only from muscle but also the weight of your bones and organs. In fact, a PLOS ONE study found that organ weight explains 43% of the differences between people’s resting metabolic rates.
These and other differences are the reason you shouldn’t expect to burn calories at the same rate as someone who’s a foot taller and 40 pounds heavier than you, says Tim Church, MD, MPH, PhD, professor of preventative medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. Think about it: Bigger, heavier things require more energy to power them. For example, a semi-truck will always need more gas than a moped.
That said, there is an expert- and research-backed strategies you can use to speed up your metabolism, whether that means burning more calories at rest or increasing daily expenditure with standby methods like exercise and physical activity. And while none of them will act as a magic weight-loss pill, when combined, small changes can lead to big results. (Get fit at home! For dozens of 10- to 20-minute routines you can do in your living room, check out Salty Cat Workouts—the all-new site that features the world’s best video workouts for free!)
The single best way to speed up your metabolism and increase your daily caloric burn? Get moving. From walking to gardening to a structured exercise routine, the thermic effect of activity (TEA) is the most variable of all the pieces in your metabolism puzzle, according to a review in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. The review shows that TEA accounts for 15 to 30% of your total daily caloric expenditure. And, obviously, the more you move, the closer you’re going to get to that 30%.
Speed it up: To keep your body burning more calories throughout the day, move as much as possible, tracking your progress with a fitness tracker. One easy metric, of course, steps. To reach your step goal, try walking to your coworker’s cubicle instead of emailing, pacing during phone calls, or taking a walk at lunchtime, says Michael R. Esco, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at the University of Alabama. However, it’s important to remember that movement isn’t limited to steps. If you’re lifting weights, cycling, gardening, or cooking, you’re moving, which is one reason why some fitness trackers also allow you to set goals for the number of minutes you’ll move or hours you’ll stand per day. Consider setting a “move” reminder on yours to break up long hours spent sitting.
There are tons of great reasons to lift weights: improved bone density, stronger muscles, lower injury risk—and a speedier metabolism.
“The more muscle a person has, the more metabolically active they are,” Esco says. After all, a muscle burns more calories at rest than fat does. To put things into numbers, a pound of muscle burns approximately six calories per day, while a pound of fat burns roughly two, Church says. So, if you replace two pounds of fat with two pounds of muscle, you’ll increase your BMR by eight calories per day. Yeah, that’s not a ton, but it certainly adds up! Plus, when many women lose weight, they lose muscle in addition to fat, causing their basal metabolic rate to nosedive. Building muscle as you lose weight helps prevent any metabolic dips.
Speed it up: Dedicate at least two days per week to strength training, making sure to hit all the major muscle groups. To maximize muscle growth (also known as muscle hypertrophy), the American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing sets of six to 12 reps with a moderate weight, making sure to take a one- to two-minute rest in between sets. And don’t skimp on the protein if your goal is to pack on muscle. (More on protein next.)
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