Metabolism refers to all of the processes that occur within a cell in order to create and sustain energy for cellular function. These processes require the energy-containing components of food, which we know as macronutrients; these are fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Boosting metabolism, then, is of great interest to fitness aficionados as an increase in metabolic rate will boost the amount of calories you burn both at rest and in the gym and can help optimize body composition. What are some ways that you can increase your metabolism?
How exercise affects metabolism
First, we need to discuss a phenomenon known as, “EPOC.” EPOC stands for, “Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption,” and can be used as a marker of metabolic activity following exercise. Increased oxygen utilisation denotes greater metabolic activity in the cell, so measuring oxygen consumption can directly relate to how many calories you’re burning.
Studies show that both resistance training and interval training result in a greater and longer EPOC than steady-state cardio (7). For the most part, the rule can be that the more intense the exercise, the greater the post-exercise increase in metabolism. That means that things like weight training, high intensity interval training, sprints, plyometrics, or anything that’s not steady state will likely result in greater metabolic activity following training. Studies have even shown that high intensity resistance training can boost metabolism for up to 38-hours after your workout (8).
The good news is that you don’t need to do an insane amount of training volume to achieve this benefit. Studies show that even doubling your resistance training volume doesn’t provide any extra EPOC benefit (1) – but you will burn more calories during the higher volume training session. However, adding training variation to your exercise plan in which you perform both resistance training and interval training will probably offer additional metabolic benefits as you’ll constantly be providing a new stimulus to your body to promote adaptation.
Can doing cardio actually decrease your metabolic rate?
Many people worry that performing steady state cardio will actually decrease metabolic rate. Fortunately, studies show that this isn’t the case – a 12-week steady state cardio program resulted in no difference in resting metabolic rate from baseline levels (4). Therefore, if you really hate weight lifting or interval training, swapping some of those sessions out for a steady state cardio workout won’t hamper your metabolic progress by any means, it’s just not quite as effective.
Ultimately, the EPOC increase seen from resistance training or interval training might only increase your metabolic rate by 10-15 calories per hour (7). Therefore, if this effect persists for about 24-hours after an average session, that equates to an extra 240-calories being burned. While that doesn’t sound like a ton, that can certainly add up over time and may result in a few extra pounds being shed during a typical 3-month diet.
For best EPOC effects, try to combine interval training with resistance training. This means things like weight training circuits, super sets, and even giant sets can help increase metabolic rate after training. With this in mind, it’s best to train multiple muscle groups at a time to maximize the metabolic benefits of the workout and provide you with plenty of exercise choices with which to create circuits or super sets.
While training methods can play a massive role in altering metabolism, diet protocols are equally as important, so let’s get to those next.
How diet affects metabolism
When people decide they want to lose weight, the first place they look is often their diet. Changing your diet is more than likely necessary when you want to lose weight as you’ll need to ensure that you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming in order to drop weight. Therefore, people on a diet tend to lower their calorie intake in order to achieve this calorie deficit for weight loss.
At first glance, this is a great idea. However, we need to remember that our body is an adaptation mastermind – if we consistently consume a lower amount of calories for a week or two in a row, our metabolic rate will actually drop to adapt to this new diet (6). Therefore, consuming a super low calorie diet can actually reduce your metabolic rate and place a speed hump in your weight loss journey.
Metabolic adaptation & calorie cycling
So what can you do about this? Studies have shown that calorie cycling can be an effective method at maintaining metabolic rate during a diet (5). This means that you would spend about 7-10 days consuming your normal weight loss diet, in which you consume fewer calories than you burn. But, after the initial 7-10 days, you’ll actually increase your calorie intake to, or slightly above, weight maintenance levels for 2-3 days. You don’t want to drive your intake way up during this period, because your goal is still to lose weight. However, slightly upping calorie intake for a few days can help keep your metabolism higher during a diet.
To calorie cycle, simply spend 7-10 days in a calorie deficit of anywhere from 200-500 calories – this entirely depends on your weight loss goals. After those 7-10 days, you’ll add the 200-500 calories back into your diet for 2-3 days to avoid metabolic adaptation to the low calorie diet. Once the 2-3 days are over, it’s back to the calorie deficit for 7-10 days.
This method can also be helpful for restoring your normal metabolic rate following a diet (5). Let’s say you’re an individual interested in priming your physique for the summer months. You undergo a calorie-restricted diet for 12-weeks leading up to summer and then switch to a maintenance diet during summer. What happens when you switch to this maintenance diet if you didn’t calorie cycle during your calorie restriction? You’ll probably actually gain some weight, because your metabolism will have adapted to the lower calorie diet and you won’t be burning as many calories at rest or during exercise (3). Therefore, your, “maintenance,” plan will actually put you in a calorie surplus due to the drop in metabolic rate.
Now, take the same situation but utilise calorie cycling during the weight loss diet instead. Studies show that you’ll return to your normal metabolism faster when you use calorie cycling during a weight loss diet (5). So, when you switch back to your maintenance diet for the summer, you don’t gain any weight because you’ll actually be at maintenance. If you want to razzle and dazzle on the beach during the summer months, calorie cycling in the months leading up to beach season can absolutely help.
How does protein intake affect metabolism?
One last easy way to increase your metabolism through nutritional strategies is by increasing your protein intake. Studies show that increasing protein intake even to the point of being in a calorie surplus actually helps burn fat, rather than gain fat (2). Why is this the case?
Protein is, by far, the most thermogenic nutrient. This means that protein actually requires energy to be both digested and absorbed, and it requires a much greater amount of energy than carbs or fats (9). This means that eating more protein will actually result in a higher metabolic rate as you’ll be burning more calories to digest and absorb the protein! This is why individuals looking to body re-comp should absolutely up their protein intake, even up to 1.5g/lb – this is a great way to build muscle and burn fat at the same time (2).
Therefore, both calorie cycling and adding more protein to your diet can be effective nutritional strategies for boosting your metabolism.
Use the strategies we mention here to optimise your metabolism for aesthetics, just don’t forget about your overall health as well. Make sure your training and nutrition plans also support health and longevity.
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- Abboud, G. J., Greer, B. K., Campbell, S. C., & Panton, L. B. (2013). Effects of load-volume on EPOC after acute bouts of resistance training in resistance-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(7), 1936-1941.
- Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Orris, S., Scheiner, M., Gonzalez, A., & Peacock, C. A. (2015). A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women–a follow-up investigation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), 39.
- Bouchard, C., Tremblay, A., Nadeau, A., Dussault, J., Despres, J. P., Theriault, G., … & Fournier, G. (1990). Long-term exercise training with constant energy intake. 1: Effect on body composition and selected metabolic variables. International Journal of Obesity, 14(1), 57-73.
- Broeder, C. E., Burrhus, K. A., Svanevik, L. S., & Wilmore, J. H. (1992). The effects of either high-intensity resistance or endurance training on resting metabolic rate. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 55(4), 802-810.
- Davoodi, S. H., Ajami, M., Ayatollahi, S. A., Dowlatshahi, K., Javedan, G., & Pazoki-Toroudi, H. R. (2014). Calorie shifting diet versus calorie restriction diet: a comparative clinical trial study. International Journal of Preventive Medicine, 5(4), 447.
- Donnelly, J. E., & Smith, B. K. (2005). Is exercise effective for weight loss with ad libitum diet? Energy balance, compensation, and gender differences. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 33(4), 169-174.
- Greer, B. K., Sirithienthad, P., Moffatt, R. J., Marcello, R. T., & Panton, L. B. (2015). EPOC comparison between isocaloric bouts of steady-state aerobic, intermittent aerobic, and resistance training. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 86(2), 190-195.
- Schuenke, M. D., Mikat, R. P., & McBride, J. M. (2002). Effect of an acute period of resistance exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: implications for body mass management. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 86(5), 411-417.
- Westerterp, K. R., Wilson, S. A. J., & Rolland, V. (1999). Diet induced thermogenesis measured over 24h in a respiration chamber: effect of diet composition. International Journal of Obesity, 23(3), 287.