We (and the entire internet) talk about “metabolism” alllll the time. But like, what even is it? What are we talking about when we say your metabolism? Is it some secret system where some people have a really good one and can eat whatever they want, while some people have one that’s a total dumpster fire? And that’s just how it is?
Not quite, no. If you have a few minutes, stick around with me here and I’ll explain to you what exactly your metabolism means and what 5 things you need to understand about it:
Your metabolism isn’t just one thing.
Metabolism is often referred to as one singular thing, like your heart or your liver. But our metabolisms are actually a collection of many systems in the body. All of these systems are metabolic in that they turn the food we eat into energy. It’s your total energy expenditure.
It’s like thinking about how far your car can go based on the energy from gasoline it gets. Some cars are fuel efficient, and others are gas guzzlers. The good news about our bodies is that we aren’t stuck like a make and model of a car. We can do things to improve our metabolic efficiency (and burn fat better), which I’ll talk about in a bit.
If you want to get real science-y, you can totally dig into the detailed ways our bodies turn carbs, fats, and proteins into energy in our cells. Go ahead and Google the “Krebs cycle” if you’re into that. But for the sake of time, we refer to this complex system and many others as our metabolism.
Your total daily calorie burn is more than just exercise
Ok, so your metabolism (AKA all the cellular systems that create energy for us) in total will burn a certain amount of fuel for us in a day. How do we know how much energy this is exactly? Is it just the calories we burn from our Apple Watch?
No. Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is composed of these 4 main areas:
TEF: this is the energy required to digest the food you eat
EAT: this is the energy required to participate in your workouts and exercise
NEAT: this is the energy required in all the other movement you do in a day like walking, chores around the house, running errands, etc.
BMR: this is the energy required to simply keep all your organs functioning and thriving while you’re at rest (AKA the energy needed to keep you alive)
The important thing to know here is that exercise is not the main way we burn energy. In fact, it’s one of the smallest pieces of the pie! (and to be honest, your calorie burn from a watch is not super accurate).
What does this mean for us? To have a better functioning metabolism, we need to focus on increasing our BMR, as well as NEAT movement. They are 2 of the best ways to be better calorie burners, even while watching Netflix on the couch. Stressing about getting more workouts in is not the answer. More on this later.
Your metabolism can adapt
It’s easy to think that your metabolism is a static thing and as long as you eat less than what it burns you will lose weight.
The truth is, your metabolism is fluid and adapting all the time.
When we plug in our height, weight, age, and activity into an online calculator, it will give you a rough estimate, but it’s important to understand that your body isn’t necessarily burning that much energy.
Think of your metabolism like a fire. If you’ve been eating enough food for a while, staying active and maintaining muscle, getting enough sleep, managing your stress….you know, all the things….then your fire is probably burning bright! That estimate is probably in the right ballpark and creating a slight deficit from there could lead to some gradual weight loss.
BUT if you have not been eating enough food for a while (among all of those other lifestyle factors), your fire is not going to be burning as bright. Eating even fewer calories than what you already are is just going to weaken your fire more.
In this situation, burning fat or losing weight has to go on the back burner because there just isn’t enough fuel to the fire. Your metabolism has to learn to preserve energy to keep the small flames burning. Your body is really smart and it’s not just going to leave you without enough energy to keep your organs going.
Do you see how it’s impossible to have a revved metabolism in this scenario?
Something I see often is women will start a weight loss journey with a somewhat healthy metabolism and then they start to eat in a calorie deficit. This will work at first, but the problem is the deficit oftentimes is way too big (like eating close to 1,200 calories a day). Their “fires” will eventually weaken because there is not enough fuel.
Eventually, this means they’ve decreased their baseline energy expenditure and they have to start eating less food to be in a deficit again. The problem here is that fat burn can’t even happen when the fire isn’t strong enough. Fat burn can’t happen when you’re eating 1,200 calories a day!
So, long story short: your metabolism is very responsive and adapts, just like a fire responds to how much wood there is to burn.
Working out more isn’t the answer
Remember how the amount of calories you burn from exercise (or exercise activity thermogenesis) from above was only about 10-15% of your total daily burn?
Does this surprise you? It probably did, because I’m guessing you’ve been told your entire life to increase how much time you’re exercising when you’re trying to lose weight (on top of eating fewer calories too).
While exercise is important, it’s not as influential to your total calorie burn is as your NEAT movement and basal metabolic rate (BMR). It’s smarter to focus your efforts on these two things instead!
How do you increase your NEAT? This is any movement that isn’t a structured workout. It’s way less stressful to the body, and this is an extra bonus because it doesn’t drastically increase your appetite like a workout would. The body also LOVES non-stressful movement for burning fat.
You can increase your NEAT by getting in more steps, standing more throughout the day, parking further away from stores, taking the stairs, etc. Getting at least 6,000 steps a day is a great start!
You can also increase your BMR really efficiently by increasing your muscle mass. This means prioritizing strength training. And yes, this means not doing cardio 5-6 days a week. We recommend 2-4 days of strength training per week with lots of walking and at least 2 rest days a week for optimal metabolic health.
Key takeaway: stop focusing so much on sweating at the gym vs. moving more in general and supporting muscle building. You don’t have to handcuff yourself to the treadmill and it’s actually probably hurting your goals.
Your metabolism doesn’t break
Ok, I did refer to our metabolisms like a car earlier in this post, but the reality is that our metabolisms don’t break down on the side of the road. Truth is, it’s never too late to turn things around and your metabolism is never completely beyond repair!
Yes, our metabolisms can down-regulate big time…but the flame never blows out entirely. As long as we are alive and breathing, we have a metabolism, but what’s up for question is how efficient it is.
Want to hear how to have an inefficient and slow metabolism?
Never lift a dumbbell as you age
Only do cardio 5-6 days a week
Eat in a 500-calorie or larger deficit from your daily calorie needs (your TDEE) for years
Get less than 7 hours of sleep
And the scary thing? Many women do this…all the time! And they wonder why they can’t lose weight.
So, the best way to have a revved metabolism?
Strength train consistently as you age!
Less cardio and more NEAT movement
Eat enough food! Eat close to your TDEE consistently
Get 7-8 hours of sleep
Daily stress management
I really want to encourage you that you can absolutely have the metabolism of your dreams, it just takes some learning (and unlearning) about your body and re-evaluating your lifestyle habits.
This is actually exactly what we teach in our 30-day, program Metabolism Makeover. It’s the inside scoop about your body & metabolism that you’ve been missing. Until now! Join the waitlist here.
And if you want some daily info about having a healthy metabolism, make sure you’re following us over at @themetabolismmakeover !