Is Your Metabolism Broken?

Age is inevitable; weakness and weight gain are not.

There’s no getting around it – we are all aging. But don’t assume that because you are past a certain age that weakness and weight gain are inevitable. It doesn’t have to be that way and you’ve got a lot more control over this than you think.  

Women over 40 tell me they’ve gained weight when weight was never an issue in their adult life. Or they’re gaining weight in all the wrong places. Or they feel like they are losing strength and flexibility so they need a new workout program that will also, by the way, help them lose weight. Sometimes all of the above. And the reason given is usually some variation of “my metabolism must be broken.”

But is your metabolism really broken? Or does it just naturally plummet during midlife, heralding a long inevitable downhill slide to weakness and weight gain? Neither, really. 

Let’s look at what metabolism is and how it changes across your lifetime. It might help explain why the methods that worked so well for you to feel lean and strong in your 20’s and 30’s don’t work as well when you’re older.

Metabolism is best described as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). TDEE is made up of 4 factors:

1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

This is the number of calories your body needs to just keep you alive. Think total bed rest, with brain functioning, resting heart rate, organs working, and cells dividing. Bigger people will have a higher BMR than smaller people.  People with greater muscle mass will also have a higher BMR.

2. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)

This is the number of calories your body needs to just keep you alive. Think total bed rest, with brain functioning, resting heart rate, organs working, and cells dividing. Bigger people will have a higher BMR than smaller people.  People with greater muscle mass will also have a higher BMR.

3. Physical Activity Through Exercise

This is self explanatory I hope. A person who exercises will burn more calories than one who doesn’t. Higher intensity exercise burns more calories than lower intensity exercise, per unit of time. When you actively exercise to build muscle, you burn calories during the process AND you can increase your BMR.

4. Thermic Effect of Feeding (TEF)

This is perhaps counter-intuitive, but it takes energy to digest and absorb nutrients from food, so eating does in fact burn calories, but please don’t think that the TEF of eating applesauce is the same as eating apples. Whole, unprocessed foods take more energy to digest.

In midlife, is your metabolism slowing or is your comfort growing?

A recent paper in the journal Science co-authored by 82 (eighty two!) scientists looked at how TDEE changes over a lifespan. They looked at data collected from the age of 8 days to 95 years and discovered that:

TDEE goes up during childhood and adolescence and then remains relatively stable between ages 20-60. Past age 60 TDEE starts to decline.

That means that changes in our body composition and body weight between 20 and 60 don’t necessarily have to do with “metabolism slowing down” but everything to do with behaviors over time rather than a biological process.

And surprisingly, men and women are actually metabolically similar, when adjusted for fat-free mass and body size.

But when it comes to menopause, and even andropause, those big hormonal shifts surprisingly do not cause or correlate with massive metabolic changes as a result.  

Wait. One. Minute.

Don’t hormones influence metabolism? Yes. Can the number of endocrine issues women experience – beyond diminished sex hormone production – affect metabolism? Sure. But this study looked at healthy subjects. If you have a diagnosed hormonal health issue, this research may or may not apply specifically to you, but the general idea does.

The bottom line: as we move through adulthood, we tend to eat more and move less. We have more sedentary jobs, spend more time driving, have more life stressors (kids, work, commuting, aging parents, pandemic…), spend less time playing, and generally if we have more aches and pains we will naturally move less over time.  Further, as estrogen levels decline women are more sensitive to the effects of stress and cortisol which can interfere with even the best weight loss plans.

And I’m the first to tell my clients this describes me too. I’m not putting myself on a pedestal or pointing fingers at anyone. We all muddle through life the best we can dealing with all the stuff that gets thrown at us. And I spend a fair amount of my day sitting, like right now, writing this.

In short, it’s time to stop believing the story of a “broken metabolism.” 

How to Boost Your Metabolism, Get Strong and Control Weight Gain

It’s time to finally stop believing you’re a prisoner of your biology – because now, thanks to this paper, you can – and recognize that you are not broken, that you have real OPTIONS to get stronger and leaner, if that’s what you want.  

Having options always feels better to me, because it puts me back in the driver’s seat, back in control (to the extent possible) of my destiny. What needs to be learned? What can I change? Who can help me if I need help? Where do I start?

Here are my recommendations for where to start:

1. Shift your diet towards whole, unprocessed foods.

Making the change from a poor quality diet (processed food-based, high in simple carbs and fat) to a higher quality diet (mostly protein and healthy fibrous carbs and vegetables) increases your TEF and will help you burn a few more calories a day. It all adds up. Plus you’ll be fueling your body with better nutrition so it will feel and function better.

2. Build muscle.

It takes energy to build and maintain muscle, so in terms of TDEE, it makes a big difference. And more muscle as we get older correlates to less frailty and better health outcomes. Don’t be afraid to train hard and  lift heavy. You are capable of so much more than you know.

3. Add a daily walk to your lifestyle.

Just move a little more. A twenty-minute walk after meals can add up quickly in terms of calories burned, but it can also significantly improve how your body manages blood sugar.  Win-win!

If any of this seems overwhelming, or if you believe you’re doing everything right but still nothing is helping, feel free to reach out and let’s develop an action plan specific for you so you get the results you want to see and feel confident living the life you want to live.