If only we could boost our metabolism, we all say to ourselves. After all, isn’t it slow metabolism that keeps us from losing weight. Knowing this thinking, marketers of weight loss products offer ways to boost metabolism and melt away pounds. But how much of this is true? How much can you really speed up metabolism?

First some basics about metabolism: Metabolism refers to the way the body uses energy that is measured in calories. The body uses calories in three ways. First, it uses calories to sustain vital body functions like breathing, heart rate, waste removel, cell growth and repair. This takes about 75% of the calories we burn. Secondly, we use calories for physical activity. Third, we use calories for digestion and absorption of food (about 10% of the day’s calories.)

The speed at which we burn calories at rest is called the resting metabolic rate (RMR). Everyone’s RMR varies and may in part be genetically determined. Some lucky people really do have higher metabolic rates than others and burn more calories doing nothing. A hand-held device, called BodyGem, can tell you what your rate is and give you an idea of whether you are fast or slow. It measures oxygen consumption which reflects the rate at which you burn calories.

Cutting calories below your RMR is not smart because then your body shifts into the starvation mode. Even if you’re eating less, your body is fighting to conserve the energy it has stored in fat, making it harder to lose weight.

So what can you do:

Activity: People who exercise regularly burn more calories and have more muscle mass than those who are less active. Aerobic and resistance exercise increases metabolism not only while you are exercising but for several hours afterwads. High intensity resistance training may have the greatest effect on metabolism but there are no studies on the aftereffects.

Sleep: Get enough sleep. Sufficient sleep regulates hormones that regular appetite and body weight. People who sleep less weigh more. Sleeping only 4-5 hours a day alters the appetite-regulating hormones and also causes a person to eat for energy to avoid feeling tired. Plus, the person is too tired to exercise.

Carbs vs. Protein: Don’t worry about whether you should go on the Dr. Atkins diet. The impact of carbs or protein on metabolism is minimal or non-existent. The amount of calories–not whether they come from protein or carbs–determines weight loss.

Supplements: Supplements work by stimulating the nervous system, e.g., increasing heart rate. There’s scant evidence that any of them have any significant inmpact on metabolism although there is evidence of their unpleasant side effects (insomnia, anxiety, heart palpitations, and elevated blood pressure).

So what are the safe ways:

l) Exercise at least 30 minutes a day with brisk walking, biking or dancing. Burn calories and get your heart pumping.

2) Strength train at least 3 times a week to increase lean muscle and the rate at which your body burns calories.

3) Eat every 4 hours; don’t go over 5 except at night. Skipping meals slows metabolism and deprives the body of needed energy.

4) Eat breakfast to wake up your metabolism, give you energy, and help you avoid overeating at the next meal.

Source: Adrienne Forman, M.S., Registered Dietitian, Environmental Nutrition, January 2006

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