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The Surprising Best Way to Boost Metabolism

As you get older, it seems like your body just wants to put on weight. Even when you eat less, the weight stays. Or it’s very slow to melt away.

If only you could burn calories the way you used to! (Or the way those naturally slim people do!).

Just about everyone wants to ramp up their metabolism – the way your body converts food calories to energy. Dial up the heat like a thermostat. But can you really do that?

You can boost your metabolism a little bit. But only a little. The two best ways to do it might surprise you.

  1. Don’t go too low in calories. When you restrict calories below your resting metabolic rate (RMR) this slows your RMR in as little as two weeks. Your body goes into energy-and-fat conserving mode (also known as starvation mode). Do this for too long and you’ll lose precious muscle, further lowering your metabolism. It’s best to lower your calorie intake slightly, but keep calories above your resting metabolic rate. This allows your body to burn calories like it should and still allows you to lose weight at a slow, gradual pace.
  2. Increase your muscle mass. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the more you have on board, the more calories your body will burn (even when sitting). After the age of 25, your body’s metabolism slows down at a rate of 2 to 10% each decade due to loss of muscle mass. Each decade, this can decrease your metabolism by about 50 to 200 calories per day.

How Your Metabolism Works

All parts of your body need energy to function, even if you sat in a chair all day and didn’t move (think of them as your “couch-potato calories”). Calories are needed to keep your heart pumping, your lungs breathing, and all of your other organs functioning. This is called resting metabolic rate or RMR.

Your RMR is roughly 60 to 75% of your total daily calorie needs. Your body creates energy by adding oxygen to food, which burns calories. Your metabolic rate is how fast your body does it. Metabolism is a well-regulated system that doesn’t like to shift gears quickly. It’s hard to budge it.

Everyone has their own unique resting metabolic rate, which is influenced by many factors: body weight, muscle mass, age, gender, hormones, genetics, and even medications you take. Fever, illness, surgery, and chronic stress can temporarily increase your RMR, whereas weight loss and caloric restriction (below RMR) lower your RMR.

Want to Know Your Own Unique RMR? You Can Do One of Two Things

  1. Estimate RMR using estimation equations such as Mifflin-St. Jeor. These only take certain factors into account such as height, weight, age, and gender. They don’t include muscle mass. Estimations may be artificially high for overweight and obese individuals.
  2. Get RMR measured with an indirect calorimeter. An indirect calorimeter measures oxygen consumption through a short breathing test of 5 to 10 minutes and is considered the “Gold Standard” for measuring RMR. The RMR is considered your “baseline” and what you shouldn’t go below.

Exercise to Increase the Burn

Since resting metabolic rate accounts for up to 75% of your total calorie intake and it’s hard to boost RMR significantly, burning more calories each day comes down to being more physically active and exercising more frequently and longer.

To increase your calorie-burning potential, start gradually and increase intensity over time. Here’s how you do it:

  • Do aerobic activity above the “moderate” intensity level at least three times a week for 30 minutes. (You’re on the right track if you’re breathing harder than normal and starting to perspire.)
  • When activity starts to get comfortable, raise the intensity level slightly.
  • Start increasing the length of time of aerobic activity (45 to 60 minutes is a great goal)

There are also types of exercises you can do to burn more calories during and after the workout. Calories burned after the workout is called “afterburn” or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) due to oxygen demand by muscles. How many calories you burn during EPOC depends on the intensity and duration of the workout. While additional calories are burned, the amount is generally small (about 20 to 50 calories per workout) but it does help over the long run.

  • Try high-intensity interval training (HIIT). This involves alternating your intensity level from moderate to high in short amounts of time throughout the workout (For example, after your warm-up, do 2 minutes moderate and 1 minute high and repeat). HIIT does require good endurance so be sure to build that up to avoid injury. More calories are burned during the workout and up to 24 hours afterward.
  • Resistance or strength training. Aim to do this at least two days per week (although more is better) to increase muscle mass, which helps boost your resting metabolic rate. After a session of strength training, muscles are activated all over your body, thereby raising your daily RMR slightly. Research studies show that RMR may increase by around 7% with an intensive strength training program, which may give you an extra 50 to 100 calories per day.

Also consider upping the NEAT factor. NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This is the physical activity we do outside of exercise such as general walking, house cleaning, yardwork, fidgeting, etc… Standing even burns more calories than sitting, so the more you’re up and moving around the more calories you will burn overall. Think move more and sit less and you can burn up to several hundred more calories each day.

Ways to burn more calories from NEAT:

  • If you have a desk job, get up and walk around for a few minutes every 30 to 40 minutes.
  • Get up from the couch or chair do stretching exercises
  • Walk around when you do talk on the phone
  • Park further away in the parking lot
  • Take the stairs whenever possible
  • Dance while cleaning
  • Get up during TV commercials and move around
  • When waiting in line step side-to-side or march in place

*Starting an exercise regimen may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Find activities you enjoy: riding a bike, a brisk walk with a neighbor, taking dance lessons, joining a fitness class.

Food and Metabolism

Calories we consume are extremely important, but so is getting the right quality for those calories. Eating more of the right kind of food is a great way to keep metabolism functioning well.

Nutrients are needed such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, healthy carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lean protein for your body to burn calories effectively. This is achieved by eating a wide variety of healthy foods and limiting processed/convenience foods.

Protein helps increase energy expenditure slightly. Your body generally burns more calories digesting protein than fat or carbohydrates, but this isn’t a large amount. Too much protein could also be too many calories. The trick is to eat small amounts of protein throughout the day. Including more fiber is also helpful. High fiber foods have micronutrients that seem to boost metabolism. They also improve blood sugar levels to squelch cravings, which helps keep portions and mindless eating in check.

Staying hydrated also helps. Your body needs water to process calories. Even if you are mildly hydrated, your metabolism may slow down. To stay hydrated, drink water before each meal and snack, carry a water bottle with you to sip on, and eat plenty of vegetables and fruit because they naturally contain water.

The Mediterranean diet is a good approach to eating to keep metabolism up. Read more here. These foods help the body oxidize fat (burn calories) and regulate blood sugar levels.

  • Berries, citrus fruit, and other fruit and veggies with vitamin C
  • Hot peppers with capsaicin
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Green tea ( 2 to 4 cups per day)
  • Legumes (dried beans, split peas, lentils)
  • Whole grains in small amounts
  • Nuts (limit portion size)
  • Poultry, fish and lean meats

Keep in mind: eat these foods as part of a balanced approach to nutrition. Don’t eat a ton of one thing, or take supplements that claim to boost metabolism. There’s no single magic food or supplement to make you burn calories faster.

Fat Burner Master-Switch?

You might have read about a switch to crank up metabolism. Scientists are looking for ways to reprogram fat cell genes to burn, not store, fat. But don’t hold your breath – answers may be a long way off.

If weight loss is your goal, find a good middle ground to lose weight and this will keep metabolism up and running while you lose. Most people are either “dieting” and going too low in calories or eating too many calories. To find that middle ground—reduce calories but keep calories slightly above your resting metabolic rate so you don’t go into starvation mode.

To find your unique resting metabolic rate, please contact the Karen Yontz Center. A registered dietitian can measure your RMR with a short breathing test. Nutrition education sessions are also available if needed to fine-tune your calorie budget. In January and February 2016, the Karen Yontz Center is offering a promotion around Heart Month for 40% off a resting metabolic rate measurement (normally $50 now $30). Call (414) 649-5767 to schedule an appointment or to get more information.

Meet the Author

Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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