“I guess I don’t mind so much being old, as I mind being fat and old.” –Peter Gabriel
Metabolism is one of the most misunderstood concepts in fitness.
The purpose of this article is to provide a simple but accurate explanation for one of the most important concepts you need to grasp if you want to get lean and stay lean for life. There are so many misconceptions about metabolism floating around and if you buy into them, you may very well be approaching health and fitness in a counterproductive way or at best, in a suboptimal way. If you want to optimize your body’s fat burning capabilities, you must first understand how your body uses energy. What is metabolism? The answer will help you unlock your body’s true fat burning potential.
I am not a biochemist and I don’t pretend to be one.
So if I can understand metabolism, then you can too. It’s actually quite a complex process, but for the purpose of this post, let’s use a simple supply and demand analogy and just say that your metabolism is defined as your body’s demand for energy. A person with a high metabolism has a higher demand for energy than a person with a low metabolism. As your body uses up its energy, it needs to create more energy for basic bodily functions, activity, and to respond to fight or flight. This process of creating more energy in itself requires energy. Therefore, a person who uses more energy will need to create more energy and will use more energy in the process of creating more energy. Hopefully, you’re still with me.
The human body is extremely efficient.
It knows exactly how much energy it needs to be producing based on your age, body type, and activity level. So it knows it’s going to need to supply more energy for an active individual than it will for an inactive individual and this is exactly what it does. Think of it like this. A high-metabolism person’s energy supply and demand scenario is like a fire hose. A low-metabolism person’s energy supply and demand scenario is like a dripping faucet. There are many factors that influence your body’s energy requirements including age, calorie intake, and activity level. There are other factors such as body size and muscle to fat ratio, but I’m going to go into these three in more detail because there are some big misconceptions associated with each of them.
Age plays a very small part in your metabolism.
A lot of people I know think that age is the biggest factor driving your metabolism. This is simply not true. What’s worse, some people believe that age is the only factor driving your metabolism. People who see me eat a lot and stay lean have actually told me “Wait until you hit 30, you won’t be able to do that anymore because your metabolism will slow down.” It’s as if they believe that on the day of my 30th birthday, my body will flip a switch and abruptly shut down my metabolism. This is complete nonsense and my argument against this is that if age is the only factor, then everyone who is 30 would look the same. Everyone who is 40 would look the same. Everyone who is 50 would look the same. Clearly, this isn’t the case. There are some people in their 50s who are in much better shape than some people in their 20s. So don’t let anyone tell you that age is the only factor driving your metabolism.
If you eat more, your body will require more energy to process the food.
This makes sense, right? It requires energy to digest food and this is the logic behind the idea of eating 6 meals per day to keep your body “constantly burning fat”. Hold up, don’t get too excited. Calorie intake is another misunderstood piece of the metabolism puzzle. Yes, your body will spend a little extra energy digesting your food. However, that doesn’t give you free reign to eat whatever you want because if you eat beyond what your body’s energy needs are, you’ll still gain weight. Think about it this way, and I’m completely making these numbers up. Say you eat a 500 calorie meal and your body burns 20 calories digesting the meal. There are still 480 calories leftover. Now, if you’re active and using up these 480 calories or more either to replenish depleted energy levels from prior exercise or for future exercise then you’re in the clear. If not, then they just get stored as fat. Remember, at the end of the day it’s still a supply and demand equation.
Active individuals require more energy than sedentary individuals.
The activity level factor is really the key to your metabolism. Remember, your body will only supply as much energy as it thinks your body needs. So if you are active, it will supply more energy and doing that will require more energy. The best way to raise your metabolism is to be more active. This is tricky because depending on how fit you are, it will take some time for your body to respond. If you are overweight and out of shape, going out and working out once or twice won’t raise your metabolism overnight. At first, your body will still take its time replenishing your energy levels because it’s used to a low energy demand.
This is why it’s really hard at first for a fat person to undergo very intense exercise. His body won’t provide enough energy to keep up. It’s almost like his stubborn body thinks he is bluffing so until he consistently proves that his demand for more energy is legit, he will get no respect. A fit person, on the other hand, gets instant respect from his body. When he begins to exercise, his body responds instantly because it has seen time and time again that he means business. More importantly, his body is supplying more energy during rest periods to replenish depleted stores and in anticipation of higher energy demand in the near future.
This is precisely why a fit person with a high metabolism burns more calories 24-7, even during rest.
Elite athletes are at the extreme upper end of this spectrum. This is why they can eat 6,000 calories per day in some cases and stay lean and ripped. Meanwhile, the sedentary cubicle worker is slowly but surely gaining weight on half of that intake.
There is one simple message I’m trying to drive home here.
What is metabolism? Metabolism is the body’s demand for energy. If you want to enjoy the benefits of a high metabolism, you need to get off your butt and be as active as possible. If you are way overweight, be smart about it and gradually work your way up. Challenge your body and your muscles without overdoing it. As you get fitter, you will notice your demand for energy increasing and that you’re burning more fat, even when you’re sitting around. Eat the right amount to meet your energy needs, not too much. If you are already lean and fit, keep doing what got you there because the body adapts quickly and can easily go the other way if you start to slack off.