Learn the surprising truth about the role your metabolism plays - and what can affect it - on your journey to healthy weight loss.

There is no way around it - losing weight and keeping it off can be a real struggle! You probably know that the higher your metabolism, the more calories you burn, so you may already wonder if a slow metabolism is to blame for your setbacks on the scale. Surprisingly, this is not usually the case. While your metabolism does play a part in your ability to lose weight, it is not the only factor. In fact, other factors may play an even bigger role - and luckily these factors are totally within your control.

What exactly is metabolism and how does it work?

Your metabolism is the process by which your body expends energy and burns calories. When people think about their metabolism, they are actually referring to two separate processes that are kept in perfect harmony within the body: catabolism and anabolism. Catabolism is the breakdown of the carbs, fats, and protein in your food to give you the energy your body needs to repair and grow itself. Anabolism is the actual repair and rebuilding process. The trouble comes when we ingest too many calories from our food than our anabolic process actually needs - we store these extra calories as fat.

How does metabolism change as we age?

It is true that weight has a tendency to creep up on us as we age, and that maintaining our typical weight becomes much more of a challenge. Why does this happen? A primary reason is that as we grow older, our body’s muscle mass is reduced, and this loss of muscle causes the metabolism to slow down since the body now needs to use fewer calories to maintain it.  Many people are also more inclined to be less physically active the older they get. But weight gain does not need to be a sure thing. We cannot control aging, but we can control important lifestyle factors that can significantly help in keeping a healthy weight despite a potential slowdown in metabolism.

Which other factors can contribute to a slower metabolism?

Hormonal imbalance. Your thyroid gland is a big player in keeping your metabolism running smoothly. It releases special hormones into the bloodstream, and when these hormones are in balance, then all is well. But when these hormones are out of whack, your metabolism can be thrown for a loop which can lead to rapid weight loss or weight gain. Thyroid hormone levels that are too low, or hypothyroidism, are the main culprit for weight gain.

Sitting too much. Sitting and lying down for long stretches have been dubbed “the new smoking” by concerned health experts for their harmful effects on our body. Sitting for too long is actually shown to disrupt our metabolism in a big way, leading to all sorts of issues like lower insulin sensitivity and unhealthy blood cholesterol levels. These in turn increase our risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. One study even showed that the subjects who sat the longest and were the least active were also the most prone to death from all causes.

Not maintaining muscle mass. No matter the number on your scale, the less muscle and more fat you have on your body, the slower your metabolism will be. This is because muscles burn more calories than fat. Participants in a 2015 study who did 96 whole body resistance training workouts over nine months showed a boost in resting metabolic rate by around 5%. Interestingly, this increase was seen even more than 48 hours later.

Losing weight too quickly: Crash dieting usually means severely restricting calories for a short time, resulting in a quick drop in weight. As tempting as this sounds, this type of dramatic weight loss can wreak havoc on your metabolism, making it even harder to lose weight in the future. Basically when you restrict, your body thinks you are starving. So it comes to your rescue by slowing down your metabolism to help you get back on track. This usually means that when you start adding more calories back in, you will pack on the pounds even quicker.

Not drinking enough water. Drinking water to help lose weight is a tried and true strategy for many, and the science behind it confirms why it works. As it turns out, drinking water does more than suppress your appetite and keep you full - it actually stimulates your metabolism. When we drink, our cells expand with more fluid, which kickstarts the metabolism into higher gear.

The bottom line: your metabolism is not entirely to blame

A seemingly slow metabolism may be an easy target, but metabolism alone is not responsible for your weight loss woes.  Research actually shows that simply having a low basal metabolic rate, or the number of calories you burn carrying out basic tasks while at rest like breathing and circulating blood, does not mean you are more likely to gain weight. In fact, your tendency to gain weight is really dependent on a whole host of factors like hormones, genetics, sleep quality, stress levels, eating patterns, and physical activity. Luckily, there is still so much you can do to boost your chances of weight loss success, no matter how fast or slow your metabolism:

  • Maintain those muscles! Engage in two or more days a week of muscle strength training that target all major muscle groups, including squats, calf exercises, bicep curls, abdominal exercises, and lunges to name a few.
  • Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week like brisk walking, or 75 minutes each week of vigorous exercise like jogging. Five 30-minute sessions per week is a good guideline to follow.
  • Keep your calories in check by eating healthy foods consisting mostly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, beans, and nuts, making special care to keep your portions in line with your daily calorie limits.