Metabolism 101: How It Works & How It Changes as You Age

Updated: Jun 10, 2021

Do you know the word for all of the chemical reactions that take place in your body? It is metabolism. You may be asking, “Wait, isn’t metabolism what keeps those extra pounds off?” Well, yes and no. Essentially, our metabolism encompasses all of the chemical reactions in the body, and the energy that’s exchanged in those reactions is calories. It is our metabolism’s job to turn the food we eat into energy for our cells to do their jobs. But what we typically describe as a fast or slow metabolism is actually our metabolic rate. Metabolic rate is what changes throughout our life to respond to the current conditions.

The conditions that impact our metabolic rate:

The first condition is muscle mass. Muscle burns more calories than fat. So when we have more muscle, our metabolic rate is going to be higher 24 hours a day, even when sleeping. What’s interesting is that typically we reach our peak muscle mass between the ages of 30 to 40.

Secondly, when we eat, we get a slight peak of our metabolic rate called the thermic effect of food. Various foods impact this at different rates (see my bonus tip below).

Finally, metabolism is impacted by hormones. For instance, a drop in estrogen tells your body to store more fat in the abdomen. Thyroid and growth hormones impact our metabolism as well.

What you can do to boost your metabolic rate:

Stay active. The goal here is to stay mobile and flexible. Daily movements, house chores, pet interaction, gardening, yoga, and many more are all great options. The key is to just keep moving.

Build muscle. Since muscle burns more calories than fat, completing muscle-building exercises is something we can control and have an impact on every day to boost our metabolic rate. Need any more motivation than that? Research shows that exercise intervention that improves muscle health improves other systems, including mental functions and balanced blood sugar . One research study has shown some improvement in the function of the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory.

Have a healthy diet. Making the right food choices for your “calories in” to balance your “calories out” (aka your metabolic rate) is important. Choose whole foods and lots of color at each meal. Here are some tips.

  1. Eating protein at every meal or snack increases satiety, which is the lasting power of your fullness. Protein has the highest thermic effect among foods. This means when you add protein to your balanced meals, you get the maximum increase in metabolic rate.

  2. Make high-fiber foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes a staple in your diet. Fiber, in its insoluble form, increases your calorie burn because your body can’t digest it but tries to anyway, which uses up energy. Soluble fiber also has many benefits, so to keep it simple, just choose a mix of high-fiber foods and you will get both types in your daily nutrition.

Physical activity and a healthy diet are powerful tools you have at your fingertips to boost your metabolism and stay healthy as you age. As with any healthy habit, start small with something reasonable and daily. For your physical activity, move up to 30 minutes of moderate activity a few days a week if you can (that’s only 2% of your day). Keeping your metabolic rate as high as possible starts and ends with daily choices. Start yours right now.

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