Visualizing your ideal body type typically comes with a habit of comparison. You get an image of your dream figure by looking at the people around you, comparing your strengths and weaknesses with theirs. We pick apart not only the physical differences, but the biological explanation for them. Thoughts like “her metabolism is faster than mine” or “he can just eat whatever he wants and not gain weight” or “she has better genetics” swirl around in our minds, leaving us defeated by our own DNA. But a little research will show you that biology is on your side when it comes to metabolism; turns out we have a lot more control over it than you think.
Your base metabolic rate (BMR) is the minimum number of calories your body needs to perform basic body functions and is measured in units of energy. Even when you're at rest, your body needs energy for vital processes, such as breathing, circulating blood, adjusting hormone levels, and growing and repairing cells, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s not, however, how fast your stomach can burn up the last meal you ate. The more lean body mass you have, the higher your metabolism. Lean body mass is everything on your frame except body fat, including muscle, water, organs and bone. Because muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue does, muscle mass is a key factor in metabolism. With this in mind, the conversation shifts from genetics to body composition, something you can change with consistent diet and exercise.
It may come as a surprise that most overweight individuals actually have a very healthy metabolism. In order to maintain the excess weight, their bodies are constantly burning an excessive amount of calories, more than the average-size person. The same concept can be applied to people with lots of muscle; the bigger the body, the harder the metabolism works to maintain their figure. That is why strength training for muscle gain, which in turn will increase your lean body mass, is recommended as a way to increase your metabolism, according to InBody.com.
Exercise isn’t the only tool in your arsenal, diet has a lot to do with your metabolic rate as well. With consistent, slow adjustments to your overall calorie intake, you can speed up this biochemical process. You also have the power to break it down. Both are forms of metabolic adaptation.
Severe calorie restriction and crash dieting can put your metabolism through the ringer. Your body gets closer and closer to what’s called starvation mode, finding ways reduce calories burned to restore energy balance and keep you from losing too much weight all at once. Your metabolism gradually slows down for sheer survival.
The opposite can also be true, when you gradually increase your food intake over time. This process is called reverse dieting. Instead of cutting down on your meals, you slowly add in calories so that your body adjusts to a new normal. Typically, you would keep your protein relatively the same, but increase carbs and fat. To start out, experts recommend increasing your carb and fat intake by just 2-5 percent per week, according to BodyBuilding.com. If you are comfortable with the weight fluxuations, you can bump that up as high as 25 percent per week. Combine this with less frequent cardio sessions and an emphasis on weight training, and you’re on your way. Eventually your body will get to place where you are maintaining a comfortable weight at a higher level of calories before.
So next time you see that slim, muscular person at the gym, think about all the factors that contributed to that end result and what you can do to achieve a similar goal. Genetics only go so far before sheer work ethic and commitment take over. Take a closer look at your diet and exercise routine, and put your metabolism to work.
Take it from me
Instagram fitness gurus were a big source of inspiration for me when I started my health journey. They had the body type I wanted so I was determined to follow every bit of advice they could give. But to my surprise, many of these fit women were eating over 2200 calories a day, way more than my body could handle without packing on the pounds. I didn’t understand why they could eat so much more than me and stay so slim. But with a little research, I realized that they had earned those calories by consistently putting on muscle over years.
Instead of being intimidated, I set a goal for myself to continually get stronger so that one day I could maintain those calories too. I had to do a reverse diet because of necessity. I stayed at a caloric deficit for so long to lose weight and even though I reached my goal, my metabolism took a hit. So I had to slowly add calories back in and get my body back to a normal level of energy consumption. In the span of a few months, I was eating over 500 more calories than before and my body thanked me with noticeable, positive changes.