5 Surprising Ways To Keep Your Metabolism Up As You Age
If you’re anything like us, you love blaming your “slowing metabolism” for keeping you from maintaining your healthiest weight. But as it turns out, your metabolism — aka the complex process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy — is influenced by a wide range of dietary and lifestyle habits.
But your metabolism isn’t necessarily slowing down with each passing year.
In fact, a recent study in the journal Science examined data from 6,500 people across all ages, and when controlling for factors such as a person’s body size and muscle mass, researchers found that metabolism and calorie-burning were at their peak from infancy to age one, after which they slowed by about 3% per year… up until age 20. These results are pretty much what we expected the scientists to find, but here’s what surprised us: they also found that metabolism holds steady from roughly age 20 to 60. This accounts for a huge chunk of adulthood, during which many experts had once assumed metabolism steadily declined and contributed to weight gain or difficulty losing weight.
There’s good news specifically for women, too: it’s long been assumed that women tend to have slower metabolisms than men, making it harder for them to maintain a healthy weight. But when controlling for the factors of body size and muscle mass, researchers found no difference between the metabolisms of men and women. (We realize that this only feels like “good news” if you weren’t really reliant on your metabolism as a scapegoat).
Here’s the unequivocally good news: metabolism is influenced by factors you control.
“To best support a healthy metabolism, you really need to look at the body as a whole,” says Jess Cording, RD, registered dietitian and health coach. These are a few of the elements that play into how your metabolism functions: what you eat, your sleep habits, and how much muscle mass you have, which you can increase with the right type of exercise. Here are some simple but meaningful steps you can take to keep your metabolism firing on all cylinders:
1. Get plenty of sleep
Getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night is one of the simplest ways to support a healthy metabolism. Several studies have found that sleep deprivation — whatever the cause — often leads to metabolic dysregulation, which may in turn contribute to weight gain, obesity, and type-2 diabetes, “potentially by altering timing and amount of food intake, disrupting energy balance, inflammation, and impairing glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity,” according to the authors of one 2014 study. Prioritizing sleep is at the very top of our metabolism-supporting to-do list because it also benefits nearly every aspect of health, from mood to immunity to memory.
The fix: To get more shut-eye, shift your bedtime 15 minutes earlier every night until you get to your goal. Minimize screen time and excessive light exposure 2-3 hours before bed, and consider a calming supplement like magnesium to help you drift off to sleep.
2. Build muscle with bodyweight exercises
If you haven’t added strength training to your workout regimen, now’s the perfect time to start: simple bodyweight exercises like pushups, squats, lunges, and crunches can build serious muscle — and having more muscle mass is one of the best ways to increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or the number of calories your body burns at rest while performing basic functions. And it leads to a virtuous cycle, too: according to Cording, muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue, so it burns more calories.
The fix: Prioritize strength training to stave off the muscle loss that tends to occur with aging.
3. Make sure your meals are protein-packed
Protein isn’t just important for complementing your strength training workouts and supporting muscle growth and maintenance, it helps you feel truly nourished, too. “Protein supports healthy levels of hormones that regulate appetite, so you feel satisfied and less prone to compulsive snacking,” says Cording. “It is also known to have a higher thermogenic effect than carbs and fat, meaning that our body uses more energy to digest and metabolize it.”
In fact, a 2021 study found that a high-protein diet consisting of about 40% protein lead to increased calorie burn and fat burning compared to a diet consisting of 15% protein.
The fix: Add more protein to your diet. But keep in mind, if you increase your protein intake, you still want to ensure you’re eating a minimally-processed diet containing a blend of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs, including plenty of fiber. And more protein doesn’t necessarily equal more meat: upping your intake of nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains will all get you closer to your goal, too.
4. Experiment with HIIT workouts
Compared to your average cardio workout like running, high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—brief, very high-intensity periods of cardio exercise interspersed with periods of rest—increases metabolic rate and burns significantly more calories long after you’re done moving. In fact, one study found that just two minutes of HIIT sprint intervals increased metabolism more over the course of a day than 30 minutes of running. Some studies also suggest that HIIT may help the body preferentially burn fat for fuel as opposed to carbohydrates.
The fix: Try out a HIIT workout and see if it’s for you. For some people, HIIT workouts may be too intense to complete daily (always listen to your body), but even one or two times a week can get that metabolic fire burning.
5. Consume mineral-rich foods
Optimal levels of certain micronutrients are often difficult to achieve through a standard American diet, and this can impair bodily processes that are crucial for a healthy metabolism. “Make sure you eat foods that are good sources of minerals that support thyroid function, which is a key factor in metabolic rate,” advises Cording. “These include iodine and selenium.”
The fix: Iodine can be found in seafood and sea vegetables like seaweed, iodized salt, fish, and dairy products, while selenium is found abundantly in Brazil nuts and is present in smaller amounts in seafood, meat, eggs, lentils, and some grains. Some people actually eat one to two brazil nuts per day as a selenium supplement. You can also consider a multimineral supplement (or a multivitamin-multimineral combo) to cover your nutritional bases.
You can also get an extra metabolic boost with specific foods…
While no food on its own is a magic bullet for metabolism, certain foods and compounds have been found to temporarily increase metabolic rate and lead to positive outcomes related to weight and body composition. Their effects are subtle, but worth noting:
- Caffeinated beverages and foods such as coffee, green tea, and guarana have been associated with lower bodyweight and successful weight loss. “One reason is that caffeine has been shown to increase metabolic rate,” says Cording. “Because caffeine is a stimulant, it may also mildly suppress appetite.” Just be sure to cap your caffeine intake at 300-400 mg per day.
- Spices such as chili peppers, which contain the active ingredient called capsaicin, may also have a subtle, temporary effect on metabolism. In supplement form, capsaicin has been shown to support fat oxidation (fat burning), increase energy expenditure (calorie burning), and regulate appetite, all of which may aid in weight management.
- Some studies suggest that citrus flavonoids such as hesperidin, which is present in grapefruit, oranges, and other forms of citrus, may be valuable tools to combat metabolic dysregulation and reduce risk of issues such as insulin resistance, obesity, and atherosclerosis by way of increasing fat oxidation (fat burning).
So, if you’re doing everything else right — like following the healthy habits outlined above — it may help to layer these foods or their active ingredients into your healthy lifestyle. Just be sure to speak with your doctor before incorporating any new supplement into your regimen, particularly if you have an existing health condition such as heart disease or diabetes.
The bottom line: metabolism is a complex process influenced by just about all of your daily habits
There are some fixes for this, too. You can hone in on the basics, such as getting quality sleep, eating a balanced diet with plenty of protein and an array of micronutrients, and implementing muscle-maintaining workouts. These are are your best bet for supporting healthy metabolism for life, and incorporating specific metabolism-boosting foods may provide an additional, subtle-but-meaningful boost, too.
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