We are warned, from a relatively young age, to enjoy our metabolism while we can—because it won’t stay that way forever. In our younger years, we might shrug off those unsolicited comments and continue to take down a greasy burger and fries without consequence. However, at some point, we do start to fear that our metabolism is experiencing a shift, and we curse our inner engine for slowing down.
But just how much does your metabolism really change as you age? And does it go gradually, or just screech to a halt out of nowhere?
Here, experts share what to expect from your metabolism as you age—and what you can do to keep it humming along.
What is metabolism?
To understand all of this a bit more clearly, let’s first address the science of metabolism.
Basically, metabolism is a fancy word for how your body breaks down nutrients and churns through calories on a daily basis. “Metabolism includes how we get energy from food and what is produced or made during that process,” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness.
What Controls Your metabolism?
Age does, in fact, play a significant role in metabolism changes. Basal metabolic rate (BMR), the baseline rate at which a person’s body uses energy (a.k.a calories) at rest, tends to slow down with age, as shown in research like this Obesity study. (Think of it as how many calories you’d burn if you laid in bed all day.)
Your body composition (how much body fat versus muscle mass you have) and general health also impact your BMR. “The more muscle and less fat that someone has, the higher their BMR will usually be,” Axe says. “However, older adults tend to lose muscle mass with age due to inactivity and for hormonal reasons.”
So, when can you expect your metabolism to decrease? It usually starts in your 30s or 40s, according to Axe. That said, your lifestyle has a notable impact on your metabolism.
How to keep your metabolism healthy as you age
The good news: There are plenty of ways to maintain a healthy metabolism as you get older. Here are six tried-and-true tips.
1. Strength Train Regularly
The American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, preferably spread out throughout the week. This helps reduce your risk of myriad diseases and conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, pregnancy complications, dementia, and type 2 diabetes.
One of the best types of exercise for keeping your metabolism healthy is strength training, as it challenges your muscles to build tissue, explains Toronto-based naturopathic doctor Olivia Rose, N.D. “When you add a weight load to your muscles through weightlifting, your body spends the next 24 to 48 hours increasing muscle strength and size,” she says. You burn extra calories during this process. Plus, the more muscle you have, the higher your BMR, since muscle takes calories to maintain.
2. Drink more water
For optimal health, The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends men and women drink 15.5 and 11.5 cups of fluids per day, respectively.
Doing so will also help you preserve (or even boost your metabolism) as you age. In fact, one study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that drinking even as little as 500 milliliters (that’s just over two cups) more water daily may be enough to boost short-term metabolism by 30 percent. “While this boost isn’t long-lasting, it does show that water plays a key role in metabolic rate and that simply consuming more throughout the day ensures we keep our calorie-burning body from adapting and slowing down,” explains Adams.
3. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet
To prevent poor metabolic health, which is tied to inflammation, insulin resistance, and diabetes, eat a nutrient-dense diet that is low in processed foods and added sugars, Axe urges.
Instead, he recommends filling your plate with as many whole foods, including fresh vegetables, fruits, grass-fed meats, eggs, wild-caught fish, whole grains, legumes, and herbs and spices, as possible.
“This dietary approach is similar to a ‘blue zones diet’ or Mediterranean diet,” he explains. “It is associated with healthy aging, prevention of chronic diseases and obesity, and better weight management.”
4. Make sure you’re Consuming enough protein
Protein is an essential nutrient found in many of the foods we eat, including red meat, poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, oats, dairy, grains like quinoa, and several fruits and vegetables.
First of all, protein is an absolute must for your muscles, Axe says. Plus, it takes more calories to digest than fats and carbs, ramping up your metabolism whenever you eat it.
Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake
He recommends consuming between 15 and 30 percent of your daily calories from protein. This will support muscle and bone mass maintenance and to keep your metabolic rate up.
Another added benefit: Boosting your protein intake may also help reduce hunger cravings and increase satiety, according to a study published in Nutrition Journal.
5. Get Adequate sleep
Sleep is an important pillar of health that is often neglected in our fast-paced society, notes Rose. In fact, one 2013 Gallup poll found that a whopping 40 percent of American adults log less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
“Sleep deprivation and insomnia can definitely have a negative impact on your metabolism,” she says. “Research shows that one system negatively impacted by lack of sleep is your hormonal system, which includes glucose metabolism, or the process of breaking down glucose into fuel that the body can use.”
Your to-do: Aim for at least seven full hours of shut-eye per night.
6. Try intermittent fasting
Fasting might sound scary, but the majority of us unknowingly do it for eight to twelve hours a day, between dinner and breakfast. And, turns out, the practice may be good for your metabolism.
“Intermittent fasting (IF), an eating pattern in which you cycle between periods of eating and fasting, can be effective to maintain a healthy metabolism,” says Axe. “It supports metabolic health by regulating blood sugar and insulin sensitivity.” Fasting also helps regulate your appetite and calorie intake.
There are several different approaches to IF, so Axe recommends choosing one that works well with your schedule and lifestyle.
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