Most people, when they’re establishing (or re-establishing) a workout routine will focus on the actual workout. Which, of course, is what you do need to spend some quality time doing. If you work out too little, you’ll make limited or no progress, get frustrated, and likely stop after a few disappointing weeks. Push too hard and you risk injury that will sideline you for days or weeks, and thus jeopardize any physical gains or mental motivation you had. The key is to develop a routine that pushes you out of your comfort zone, burns more calories than you’re taking in (assuming you’re wanting to lose weight), but stops short of pushing your body into the red.
But keep this truism in mind: when it comes to weight loss, it’s not really the calories that you burn while you’re working out that will have the greatest impact on your health…it’s the calories you burn between your workouts that will account for most of your calorie burn throughout the week. Let me explain: broadly speaking, your metabolism is determined by two forces: genetics and what we’ll call your lifestyle. The first you can’t do too much about. It’s the hand you’ve been dealt. But the second one, your lifestyle, you can impact. The engine for increasing your metabolic burn is your muscle mass. The more muscle you build, the more calories you’ll burn. (For a more detailed explanation, see the Mayo Clinic’s Metabolism and Weight Loss). And this doesn’t apply to just your time at the gym. With increased muscle comes increased calorie burn (your resting metabolic rate). The higher this rate, the more calories you’ll burn throughout the day doing your regular, day-to-day routine.
Now having said this, when you’re looking to lose weight, every calorie counts. And what many don’t realize is that they are sabotaging their own efforts to reach their fitness and weight loss goals because they are unnecessarily putting a drag on their metabolism. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to fitness or a health guru, there are things that you can likely do to boost your metabolism. The following are four areas where you might be putting the brakes on your weight loss:
While there’s been some recent controversy over just how much water one should drink, or how many Americans are chronically dehydrated, the effects of dehydration are well established and better understood. According to a University of Utah study, a “2 percent decline in calorie burning per day” can occur with dehydration during working out. This carries over to your resting metabolism as well, so if you’re not properly hydrated, you’re actually robbing yourself of calorie burn. Imagine that being multiplied over the course of a week, a month, and a year. So despite what side of the debate you might fall on over whether you should drink 8 cups of water a day (the conventional wisdom) or not, as an active person trying to build your fitness, you need to drink. This makes sense: if you’re working out, you’re going to need to hydrate more than someone who is sedentary. Stay hydrated, and your body will perform better, and your metabolism will perform without unnecessary drag.
This one is a little more difficult to address, considering our hectic lifestyles these days. But when you’re trying to maximize your fitness, and in particular maximizing your body’s metabolism, getting adequate sleep is very important. Studies have shown that as we’ve cut down on our sleep, our metabolism is impacted. Generally speaking, you should try to get at least 7.5 hours of sleep per day. When you trim that number, according to researchers at the University of Chicago Medical Center, your body’s ability to process and store carbohydrates is impacted. Not only will your metabolism slow, but your cravings for comfort food (in other words, fatty and sugary snacks) will increase. So instead of staying up watching the Tonight Show, set the DVR and get an extra hour or two of sleep.
Incidental calorie burn:
I love this. This is where I get to magnify the results of my workout throughout the week. And it’s as easy as taking the stairs instead of an escalator at the mall. Or if you need to enter a building, and have the option, go in through the farthest door you can. Choose to take the long route. The thing here is, I’m making my body do things to burn calories, and every extra step I take, every extra thing I carry, all of the additional exertion I do contributes to increasing my “nonexercise-activity thermogenesis”, or NEAT. Simply put, even the most dedicated fitness buffs spend most of their waking hours outside the gym. Use that time to perform physical activity whenever you can. The extra calories you use in doing this will add up. And for a bonus, as you’re building muscle in your exercise routine, the amount of calories you consume during these incidental activities will only increase.
Multiple meals through the day
This one is probably the least substantiated by credible research, but there’s a lesson here. The theory goes that when you eat three square meals a day, you’re eating more than your body can really process at once. Anything that your body can’t readily use shortly after being consumed will ultimately be turned into fat. So by switching to six smaller meals throughout the day, you’re giving your body calories more on an “as needed” basis. This allows you to use the available calories immediately, with little or nothing left over for storage as fat. Personally, I think there’s something to this. Years ago, when I was using the Body For Life program, I was on this plan, and it seemed to work great. But even if you decide that your lifestyle doesn’t support eating six smaller meals per day, make sure that you think about what you’re eating, and when you’re eating it. Eat lighter dinners, and healthier, leaner breakfasts. Also, add in occasional healthy snacks so that come meal time, you’ll be able to say no to seconds. Portion control is key, no matter how many meals you eat.
Half of the struggle establishing a healthy lifestyle is psychological. Everything you do that proves to yourself that you’re doing whatever it takes to get into shape will motivate you, increasing your momentum until you reach your fitness goals. So after you’ve had a good workout, do yourself a favor and build on that by looking after your body throughout the week. Your metabolism will thank you, and you’ll find your fitness goals that much easier to achieve and maintain.