Everyone knows your metabolism automatically slows down as you age, right? Well, no. True, metabolism is linked to lean mass – and since falling androgen levels mean maintaining muscle gets tougher the older you are, inactive people will certainly see a drop-off as they swap playing five-a-side for watching Football Focus. Keep enough muscle on board, though, and there’s no reason you’ll see a downturn.
But however old you are, what can you do to improve matters? First, you need to understand what your metabolism does. Basically, it’s the process via which nutrients in food are broken down to fuel your body’s functions – but to complicate things slightly, the speed of your metabolism depends on complex chemical messages sent to your brain by your body, telling it how much it needs to keep going.
“What that means is that if any of these chemical processes get derailed, so does your metabolism,” says Luke Leaman, nutrition (opens in new tab) specialist and co-founder of Muscle Nerds (opens in new tab). So even if you’re crushing it in the gym, your fat might stubbornly stick around. Here’s what you need to know.
Should I be eating six meals a day to fire up my metabolism?
No. It’s true that you get a brief metabolism surge every time you eat, but the size of the spike corresponds to the size of the feed. So three big meals a day will have the same cumulative effect as five or six small ones.
“Eating more meals to stoke the fire doesn’t work,” says Leaman. “You’d be better off focusing your efforts on nutrient deficiencies. One of the easiest things to take is methylated B vitamins – methylated meaning that it’s already broken down into its usable form. Stress, high sugar consumption and lack of sleep all deplete B vitamins, and you need them for a number of metabolic processes.”
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Eat more leafy greens or invest in a quality supplement.
What can I do in my training for a positive effect on metabolism?
Slow it down. It turns out that steady-state cardio efforts aren’t as useless as the HIIT crowd might have you believe. “If you aren’t bringing enough oxygen into your system you can’t oxidise carbohydrates or fats appropriately,” says Leaman. “That means you aren’t going to get lean as fast as you’d like – plus all the anaerobic work you’re doing jacks up your sympathetic nervous system. To get things in balance, add some long, slow cardio efforts to your training. For health and long-term fat loss, it’s about weightlifting and aerobic work. You don’t want to smash yourself anaerobically all the time.”
Go back a second, are you saying just getting more oxygen can help?
Yes, and it’s one of the simplest things you can do. “In an oxygen deficit you’re effectively anaemic, even if it’s not coming from an iron deficiency,” says Leaman. “Most of your body’s processes are oxidative, so just learning to breathe better can help them to run more efficiently. Try yogic breathing: spend some time learning to breathe through your stomach instead of through your chest – or doing 4-7-8 breathing, where you breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven, and breathe out for eight. You’re calming your breathing down, getting rid of a lot of carbon dioxide, nobody knows you’re doing it, and it’ll literally melt fat. And it’s free!”
What else can I do that’s easy?
Drink more water. “Everyone knows this, but chances are you’re not getting enough,” says Leaman. “You should drink at least two litres a day, more if you exercise.”
Water, breathing and leafy greens. Anything I shouldn’t be doing?
Ordering “miracle” supplements off the internet. “The weight-loss drug DNP sure works, but the side effect is that it can kill you,” says Leaman. “It’s used as a pesticide, and it can literally melt you from the inside.” Always remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Stick with the advice here and as well as burning fat, you’ll save money – and maybe even your life.
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Can cooling yourself down really speed up your metabolism?
In short: maybe. “There’s been some recent coverage of how cold affects your body’s brown adipose tissue – the fat that helps to regulate body temperature,” says Leaman. “What we’re figuring out is that cold therapy – training in the cold with as few clothes as you can handle – can kick-start fat loss, if it’s done correctly.” Even turning your shower down a couple of notches might help – but until more research is done, the more tried-and-tested solutions here are a surer bet.
From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.
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