A slow metabolism is the common culprit for gaining fat. A host of factors have been blamed, and most claim it’s part of getting older, rendering fat gain inevitable.
Others claim that’s nonsense, and we can increase metabolism at any age. Add muscle, and that will fire up our metabolism.
Neither would be entirely correct.
You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is, so I’m going to quickly tell you the truth about your metabolism, why it’s slowing down, and what you can do about it if your goal is to control, or lose fat.
The short answer is that, yes, unless you are Benjamin Button, Your metabolism is slowing down. But don’t think that this is some new midlife change. Not by a long shot. Your metabolism has been slowing down since you were in grammar school.
And don’t buy into the hype and myths spewed by gurus and WebMD that increasing muscle will instantly crank up your metabolism to burn 1000 calories more a day. Sure, increasing muscle is good for you and will help, but not the way you think. For example, studies have shown that increasing your muscle mass by 2 lbs will only increase your daily calories expenditure by 10 calories a day.
I’ll explain more about why your metabolism slows as you age, and give you step by step instructions on how to fix that so you can control your weight here. Forget scouring the internet and scrolling your FB feed. I’ll lay it out in plain English for ya here.
Your metabolism didn’t just start slowing down
A key driver of your resting metabolism, or the calories you spend just sitting around, are your organs. It’s the brain, liver, kidneys, etc. that consume the most energy, not your muscles. And this explains while metabolism slows down as we age.
As a kid, your highly metabolically active organs are growing driving your metabolism through the roof. However, as growth slows down, so does metabolism, which is why we see metabolism slow by about 25% from 6-18. After that, metabolism slows by about 2-3% per decade.
So your slowing metabolism didn’t just recently start to grind to a crawl. It’s been going on for a while. But there’s good news.
Just add muscle?
While it is true muscle does increase metabolism, I mentioned above that its effect is small. To make matters worse, most are losing muscle as they age. Studies estimate that we lose about 8% muscle mass per decade beginning in our 40s. This rate increases to 15% per decade in our 70s. So for a 150lb woman who has 20% body fat composition at 40 years old will likely lose almost 12 lbs of muscle by her late 60s. This means she will burn at least 60 calories a day less at rest.
However, research shows that we can prevent this so called “age related” muscle loss. First, it seems like tension, not time, is the biggest contributor to muscle loss. Just look back several decades ago to what happened to astronauts when they were put into gravity-eliminated environments for weeks. They came back severely atrophied, unable to do basic tasks like walking and stairs.
Research proves that activity can prevent muscle loss from the 40s to the 80s.
However, rather than preventing muscle loss, let’s say we added some muscle to a women in her mid 40s and maintained that. In our prior example of the 40-year-old women doing no resistance training, she will see her resting metabolism drop by 60 calories a day, which could lead to about a 6 lb gain in fat each year.
IF we prevent that muscle loss, and actually increase muscle by 4 lbs, we could see her burn more calories each day resulting in a loss of 10.4 lbs of fat in a year instead.
But let’s also take into account that resting metabolism decreases 2-3% each decade starting in the 20’s.
Let’s say your resting metabolic rate at 20 is 2000. By the time you are 45, it will likely slow to about 1875. Moving to your late 60s, you should expect resting metabolism to slow to 1757. That’s a reduction of just less than 5 calories per day, which is easily offset by maintaining a gain of just 1 lb of muscle mass (approx 25 cal per day) in our middle age years.
But that’s just the beginning.
The real benefit of preserving muscle
So while maintaining muscle will curtail the effects of a slowing metabolism due to age, and gaining muscle can halt it, the real benefit is more dramatic than the small yet significant effective of muscle on metabolism.
Stronger muscles produce more for work, which in turn requires more energy during exercise. Basically, you are able to work out harder when you have more muscle mass. If your muscles are weaker, poorly conditioned, or atrophying, you won’t be able to burn as many calories while working out.
If this means that you will burn an extra 25 more calories per workout, and you work out 3 times a week, that could add up to a difference of 3900 more calories burned per year, or an extra 2.7 lbs of fat burned from your mid 40s to late 60s.
In addition, stronger muscles, joints, and bones will allow you to tolerate more work. This will keep tissue from breaking down and getting injured, which keeps you in the calorie burning game longer, not to mention happier.
Finally, while studies show that muscles only account for about 6% of our metabolism at rest, recovering muscles can account for up 20% of calorie expenditure at rest. When muscles are challenged, they suffer micro damage, which the body repairs resulting in a stronger muscle. While the process may change as we age, it is yet another reason why challenging muscles as we age can combat metabolic slow down over time.
Your prescription to keeping your metabolism revving
While there are many, many factors that affect our metabolism (depression, medications, organ function, etc.), preserving and even increasing metabolism is a critical element that we have control over, and yields so many other profound benefits besides controlling weight.
So here’s exactly what to do to keep your metabolism from grinding to a halt:
1. Get assessed. If you aren’t assessing, you are guessing. Have body composition measures and undergo a movement screen from an expert trained in rehabilitation and fitness. This allows you, no matter what level to start at, to avoid injury and maximize response.
2. Keep a food log. Everyone hates this, but no one can deny its effectiveness. Yes, writing stuff down may seem tedious. Sure, it will be hard to see your transgressions in writing. But it is simple and essential. Nutrition is vital to not only create the optimal caloric balance, but to assure you are properly fueling the body. The tired notion of “just eat less and move more” doesn’t work, nor give clarity.
3. Have your food log reviewed. I’m amazed by how many people use food tracking apps, yet never have a qualified expert review it with them (no, a rep for beach body or weight watchers does not count). I get why people are reluctant… they fear they’ll be shamed or scolded for the obvious bad food choices. That’s not what a good nutritionist would do. Instead, picking up on patterns, changing behaviors, and reinforcing what you are doing right are things a nutritionist can help with.
4. Learn functional movements. Exercises that replicate movement that resemble or improve movements that you have to do in daily life have several benefits besides obviously improving your daily function. They require you to use multiple muscles at once rather than in isolation like many machine exercises, which means you’ll work harder and burn more calories. Another huge benefit is that most of these exercises can be done with little or no equipment, making it easier to stick to your routine.
5. Intensify functional movements. Once you have the learned the right way to perform different functional movements, you now need to start to progress them. This phase is really where someone can start gaining strength, better overall daily function, and of course … burn more calories.
6. Learn how to modify; progress and regress. Being able to perform these movements consistently over time takes modification in certain situations. Are you dealing with an injury?. Have you had a set back? Or, hopefully you have been progressing positively with no issues? Each one of these situations calls for a need to modify the program.
7. Find your energy system solution. Interval training is a great way to torch body fat along with proper resistance training. Essentially, it is doing a lot of work in a short amount of time, therefore making the intensity high. Higher intensity = more fat burning, contrary to what many people think that the duration of exercise burns more fat, which erroneous.
8. Make it stick – accountability and support. Having a coach is absolutely crucial to success. People are 76% more successful in reaching their goals if they have to write them down and then report them to a coach. Having the right coach helping you can make all the difference.
So the actions are pretty simple … you just have to have the right fitness professionals who know how to design a plan that fits your needs and knows how to modify, assess, and provide the support you need to lose body fat successfully and get your metabolism back on track.
Check out our latest fitness challenge here to get started on speeding your metabolism back up and finally be able to reach your fitness goals you’ve always wanted to accomplish.