“I have a high metabolism.” It’s the infuriating explanation given with a coy shrug by every model, actress, and skinny friend who still shops in the juniors department despite shoveling burgers and pizza in her mouth every chance she gets. Do you also have a high threshold for pain? you may want to ask while gritting your teeth. But sadly, it’s true. Some people are genetically blessed with a high metabolism. Luckily, there are ways for the rest of us metabolic sloths to boost ours. It might not be enough to get you in a bikini before summer, but it will give you more energy and may help you whittle your waist.
What is your metabolism, anyway?
Metabolism is the name for the chemical processes by which living organisms stay alive. When we talk about metabolism, we’re talking about the amount of energy, in calories (yes, those calories), your body needs to maintain itself. These processes are twofold, constructive (synthesizing proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to store energy) and destructive (breaking down substances into energy and waste), and are happening all the time. Whether you’re in Zumba class or vegetating through the workday, you are metabolizing. It’s helpful to think of your body as a car and your metabolism as the Little Engine That Could. You put fuel (food) in and get energy out.
The answer to the question “Can you change your metabolism?” is really yes, and it’s also no. Your metabolism is dependent on three things. The first and largest thing is your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This is the amount of energy your body needs just to sustain your vital organs, like your heart, lungs, and kidneys. It’s the baseline—what the car needs to idle—and it’s responsible for about 60 to 75 percent of your metabolism. It’s also inherited and fairly stable. The other two factors, which can be fine-tuned, are exercise and digestion, both of which use energy. They’re like putting your foot on the accelerator.
The above is true for everyone, but there are other factors that influence an individual’s metabolism. You are not imagining that it’s easier for men to lose weight than it is for women. Between a man and a woman of the same weight, the man will burn more calories. That’s because men generally have more muscle and, because muscle requires more calories than fat, faster metabolisms. (Incidentally, this is also the reason they can drink you under the table: they’re metabolizing that alcohol faster.) Age is another factor. Along with wrinkles and light bladder leakage, a slower metabolism is something we have to look forward to after the age of about 30, when we start to gradually lose muscle mass. So what can we do to keep our engines revving?