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If you want to lose weight, you may be wondering how to increase metabolism. The word “metabolism,” as most people use it, refers to the number of calories your body burns.
There are several ways to crank up the rate at which your body expends calories—both during physical activity and at rest. But there’s a lot about metabolism that people misunderstand, and you can find countless bogus claims about upping your fat-burning metabolism online. If you want to boost metabolism, there are right and wrong ways to go about it.
What is your metabolism?
Metabolism refers to all the chemical reactions that go on inside your body. This includes anabolic processes, which lead to the creation of new molecules. It also includes catabolic processes, which lead to the breakdown of molecules (Blanco, 2017).
But when most of us talk about “increasing metabolism,” this isn’t what we’re talking about. Instead, we’re referring to the body’s basal metabolic rate. This is the rate at which the body expends energy, also known as burning calories (Konarzewski, 2013).
All day every day, your body is expending energy to keep you alive. But some bodies burn more calories than others (Hames, 2016).
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Your body makes energy by breaking down the foods and drinks you swallow. It doesn’t like to waste any of that energy. So if it ends up with more than it can use, it stores that energy away. This storage contributes to the accumulation of body fat, also known as “adipose tissue,” and weight gain (Galgani, 2010).
On the other hand, if your body burns more energy than it takes in, it will tap its fat stores to make up for these energy shortfalls. This can reduce adipose tissue, which is good for weight management and weight loss (Galgani, 2010).
If your metabolism (basal metabolic rate) is higher, you’ll burn calories faster and will be less likely to accumulate stored energy in the form of fat (Galgani, 2016).
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How to increase metabolism with exercise
Any time you move your body, your basal metabolic rate speeds up. That’s because activity requires more energy than inactivity (McNab, 2019).
The more intense and vigorous the movement, the greater the increase in basal metabolic rate; this means intense exercises such as running or squats burn fat and calories more than lighter aerobic activities such as walking. A good rule of thumb is that the more an exercise raises your heart rate, the more energy you’re burning (Hills, 2014).
Once you stop exercising, your metabolism tends to slow back down to its normal level (Aird, 2018). But there’s evidence that some types of exercise—like interval training and resistance training—may increase your resting metabolic rate, which is the amount of energy you burn when you’re not moving.
Interval training, also known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), is exercise that alternates between very high and low intensities. For example, interval training might involve running hard for one minute and then walking the next (Jung, 2019).
This is different from traditional “continuous exercise,” where your pace or intensity doesn’t change much. For example, going for a run where your speed is more or less the same is an example of continuous exercise (Jung, 2019).
Some research has found that interval training, compared to continuous exercise, may lead to a greater post-exercise uptick in metabolism. In other words, once people stopped interval training, their metabolism remained higher for longer. This was true even when both interval training and continuous exercise were designed to burn the same number of calories. According to one study, women who interval trained burned roughly 50% more calories per minute post-exercise, while men burned 38% more (Jung, 2019).
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There are many different interval training protocols to pick from. One that’s been studied involves running, cycling, or swimming at your maximum intensity for 30 seconds and then resting for 4.5 minutes before going all-out again for another 30 seconds. Do this for a total of 4-6 all-out sessions, each spaced out by 4.5 minutes of rest (Burgomaster, 2008).
Just keep in mind that interval training may be risky for people with health conditions. You should check with a health professional first before starting an interval routine.
Muscle burns more energy than other tissues. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body will burn through during the day—even when you’re not exercising. By building muscle through strength (resistance) training, you may be able to increase your metabolism (Periasamy, 2017).
One study of adult women found that six weeks of strength training led to a significant increase in basal metabolic rate. The women burned an average of 247 more calories per day. More research on strength training has shown similar improvements in metabolism and energy burn (Stavres, 2018; Saeidifard, 2019).
However, the research on strength training has not shown that these metabolism improvements always lead to weight loss. In many cases, people tend to eat more when training hard, and this can offset the metabolism improvements. Still, strength training is associated with better overall health (Saeidifard, 2019).
How to increase metabolism with diet
Technically, eating increases metabolism. The process of digestion requires energy. But if you’re looking to lose weight by boosting the amount of energy you burn between meals, that’s trickier.
In fact, a lot of dietary research has shown that, as you lose weight, your metabolism actually slows down. This is one reason why losing weight is so difficult; in some ways, the body works to hold onto its stores of energy and fat (Hames, 2016).
But there’s some evidence that certain weight-loss plans may not cause this drop in metabolism. Specifically, ketogenic diets don’t seem to reduce metabolism as a person loses weight. This may be because ketogenic diets maintain muscle mass while targeting body fat (Gomez-Arbelaez, 2018).
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But if you want to increase your metabolism, only a small handful of foods have been shown to do this.
Caffeine is a stimulant. Like exercise, it activates your sympathetic nervous system and increases your heart rate. And like exercise, caffeine can increase your metabolism (Jeukendrup, 2011).
Some research has shown that caffeine, even in small amounts, may ramp up your metabolism by as much as 3-4% for the 2.5 hours after you ingest it. Research has also found that caffeine may “liberate” stored fat in ways that help your body break it down if you’re exercising. That said, there’s not much evidence that caffeine, by itself, can lead to weight loss. There also isn’t much work showing an ideal dose to speed up metabolism (Jeukendrup, 2011).
The good news is that most of the recent research on caffeine suggests that, in low-to-moderate doses, it’s good for your health. But many sources of caffeine (soda, energy drinks) are bad for you (van Dam, 2020).
Black coffee may be an ideal source of caffeine. Research has linked coffee to a number of health benefits. If you’re keeping your intake to three to five cups per day, and you’re not loading it with sugar, cream, or other caloric additives, coffee seems to be a safe and healthy way to get caffeine and its metabolic benefits (van Dam, 2020).
Green tea naturally contains some caffeine. But it also contains catechins—chemical molecules that research has linked to increased metabolism and fat burn. As with black coffee, research suggests that green tea is both safe and healthy and that its metabolic benefits may be higher when people drink it just before they exercise (Jeukendrup, 2011).
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Capsaicin is the spicy compound that gives hot peppers their heat. Some work has found that high doses of capsaicin may slightly increase metabolism (Ludy, 2012).
But “the magnitude of these effects was small,” wrote the authors of one study. They concluded that packing your diet with capsaicin-containing foods could potentially aid weight loss, but the benefits would likely be modest (Ludy, 2012).
Supplements and “fat burners”
You may have heard claims that some fat-burning supplements can increase your metabolism and aid in weight loss. But, to date, the research on these is inconsistent—or non-existent. Many of these supplements have been linked to health problems or risks (Jeukendrup, 2011).
Lifestyle changes to increase metabolism
Aside from diet and exercise, a few more techniques may help increase your energy expenditure.
Some research suggests that eating breakfast may shift your metabolism in ways that increase fat burn. One study had people eat either breakfast or a similarly sized meal late at night before bed. Compared to those fed a nighttime meal, the breakfast eaters were more likely to burn and less likely to store additional calories—even though their total daily energy intakes, physical activity, and other activities were the same. The study’s authors said that the metabolism might be better activated by morning meals (Kelly, 2020).
That study is far from conclusive. But other researchers have also linked breakfast to improved metabolic health (Min, 2011).
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There is some evidence that cold exposure can cause changes to fatty tissues in the body. Specifically, spending time in cold environments—enough to give you the chills, but not enough to present any health risks—may slowly turn some regular white fat deposits into metabolically active “brown fat” or “beige fat.” These cold-triggered fats seem to burn more calories than normal fat. But again, not all the research on cold exposure backs this up. For now, the evidence is inconclusive (Fernández-Verdejo, 2020).
Increasing your metabolism the right way
It’s not hard to hop online and find a thousand bogus claims about upping your fat-burning metabolism. But as of right now, there are just a handful of research-backed methods you can use to increase your daily energy expenditure, including the methods stated above.
Before embarking on a metabolism-boosting mission, it’s always a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider, who can make sure that you approach any new exercise routine or diet change safely and sustainably.
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.