“Well, I want to lose weight. I’ve lost weight in the past a few times, once when I bought those expensive meal plans and once when I started running. But after a few weeks, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had no energy, and I was hungry all the time. I gained all the weight back, and then some. I would really like to you have better willpower this time.”
Does that sound familiar to you? It certainly does to us. We have done consultations with thousands of clients throughout our careers, so we have heard this one a lot. We also discussed this a few weeks ago, so go back and check it out if you missed it. Today we will be talking about resting metabolic rate.
Your resting metabolic rate is defined as the number of calories a human burns in a rested state. Turns out, even if we are not currently exercising, humans need quite a bit of energy just to stay at rest. Hopefully if you are reading this, you have a heart that pumps, kidneys that are filtering, a brain that is thinking, and all kinds of things going on inside. You also have a certain amount of muscle mass that allows you to be mobile. All of these things contribute to your resting metabolic rate. Your resting metabolic rate makes up the majority of the calories you burn every single day. You have probably heard that in order to lose weight, you must be in a “negative caloric balance”. That simply means that you must burn more calories than you consume in your diet. It makes sense. If someone is burning 2000 calories a day, and they eat 2000 calories a day, then we would expect them to maintain their weight. That sounds simple enough. Now let’s say they want to lose a few pounds. No problem! All we need now is simple math. There are 3500 calories in a pound of fat. Divide that number by seven for each of the days of the week, and we have 500 calories per day. Logically, all you would need to do is reduce your calorie intake by 500, increase your energy expenditure by 500, or some combination of the two. By the end of the week, you will have lost one pound. There is a popular television show that uses these concepts as well. Contestants work out for several hours a day and eat and extremely limited number of calories. It is amazing and inspiring to see these people put forth so much effort. And it works! So many of them lose a tremendous amount of weight. How wonderful that these people took control of their lives back and got back on track to their goals! We think you know what happens next. A vast majority of the contestants are unable to lose any more weight when the contest ends. In fact, most people struggle just to maintain the results they got from the show. Almost every single contestant gains a significant amount of weight back. Did they lose their willpower? Maybe they were only motivated to lose weight because so many people are tuning in to watch. What they did not tell you is that these contestants are lowering their resting metabolic rate. This study done in 2016 shows that some of the contestants regained nearly all of their weight back after the conclusion of the show. But the stunning part was to see the decline in their resting metabolic rates, even after six years. Some contestants had a metabolic rate that were hundreds of calories lower than when they started. Let’s pause here and note that your resting metabolic rate is not static. It can change based on the circumstances. This is a critical point. Having the ability to change our metabolic rate can be helpful, considering all the changes we have gone through as a species over millions of years. In times when food was be scarce, like in times of famine, it would not make sense for your body to have a high resting metabolic rate. Your body would start to slow down any function that it considered to be nonessential. That could help you survive until the famine was over. Why would the body use calories to build muscle, make strong hair or nails, or keep you warm, when all it really want to do is just get by? What about times when there would be lots of food available? Now the body could do all kinds of great things with the extra calories! It would have enough raw materials to build muscle. It would have lots of energy to keep you warm. Your hair, skin, and nails could all be fortified and strengthened. Your resting metabolic rate would start to increase as your body is putting the surplus of calories to work. Now let’s return to the situation with the unfortunate contestants of the TV show. See where we are going with this? Tragically these contestants caused the very thing they were hoping to avoid. Yes, they lost a bunch of weight when they crushed themselves working out and starving themselves. But doing those things shut down their resting metabolic rates. Now they are burning several hundred calories less every single day at rest. At Boundless Body, we like to say that we do not care too much about how many calories you burn when you exercise. If the treadmill at the gym tells you that you just burned 500 calories on that sweaty run, we think that is great! But we wonder what signals you are sending to your body. If you are constantly telling your body that calories are sparse, and you’re out running around looking for food, unsuccessfully, then you are absolutely at risk of lowering your metabolism. What we do care about is teaching you strategies that allow you to burn that same 500 calories by just being you and going about your business. That is how you receive the benefits that we previously discussed. You can maintain and build muscle. You can have greater energy and focus. Your hair, skin, and nails will be strong and robust. You will be able to lose fat much more effortlessly without necessarily having to track calories. And if you have lowered your metabolism in the past, the good news is that you can bring it back up. So how do you pull that off? Here are a few tips that we like to recommend. 1) Stop depriving yourself. You must get an adequate amount of calories and nutrition to keep your metabolism humming along. A calorie deprived diet may work in the short term, but it will almost certainly fail in the long term. It will cause your metabolic rate to decline, which means you will be hungry, tired, cold, and craving sugar. Continue to focus on protein intake to support muscle mass and eat to satiety. 2) Do resistance training. This one is absolutely critical. Having a safe and challenging strength training routine is one of the best ways to keep your metabolism high. Muscle tissue is metabolically active, meaning the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate will be. That’s pretty easy to understand if you see how much food a bodybuilder can eat without getting fat.
One critical point that we want to make with strength training is that you must push yourself to a very deep level of fatigue. We prefer very intense sets of compound exercises that go very close to failure. If you do not know how to design programs or exercise safely, then hire a certified personal trainer. A good trainer can teach you the proper skills and techniques, so that one day you can do this on your own if you choose. A trainer should also be motivating and educational. Maybe we are a bit biased, but we think great trainers are worth the rate they charge. 3) Try intermittent fasting. This one took us a long time to wrap our heads around. We noticed some interesting trends when we tested resting metabolic rates on people that do some form of intermittent fasting. Generally speaking, we would notice metabolic rates that were quite high, sometimes several hundred calories higher than the expected value. They felt very little hunger, were able to stay relatively lean, and felt generally felt great. We would tell them that they must eat a minimum number of calories, at least as high as their resting metabolic rates. They would look at us, perplexed. They explained that there was no way that they could eat that many calories, unless they added a bunch of junk food. As it turns out, eating less is vastly different than not eating at all. This is explained quite well here (and the article features a picture of George Costanza, that's an extra bonus.). All you need to know is that when you are not eating, you are teaching the body to rely on the energy that is already present, which is stored body fat. This is the fat that most people want to have less of. When the body finds these calories, the metabolism increases. This is a simple, cheap, and easy way to lose fat and boost your metabolism. If you haven’t fasted before, or if there are a lot of carbohydrates in your diet, this might be difficult for you to get started. Try to start slowly and do not push it too much. Continue to focus on eating fat and protein until you are satiated. You could start with pushing back your first meal of the day to be a little later. You could try skipping a meal here or there. You do not need to be dogmatic about it. Try to see if you can stick with the discomfort of being hungry. It is probably not as hard as you think it will be.
If you have questions, consider hiring a professional nutrition coach who has a strong base of knowledge about fasting. In general, we find that any fast under 24 hours is perfectly safe for most people. Once you get outside of that timeframe, find some help.
Protecting your resting metabolic rate is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your overall health. Avoid falling into the trap of calorie deprivation. Use the tools we mentioned above to keep your engine revving!