The formula for weight loss is simple: Burn more calories than you consume. Or at least, it sounds simple. In reality, weight loss is like a jigsaw puzzle—there are many different pieces, from the foods you eat to the activities you do. And the more pieces you have, the greater their effect on the ultimate weight-loss driver: your metabolism.
“Metabolism” is a catch-all term for all of the chemical reactions that take place in your body’s cells, from converting food into fuel to creating hormones such as cortisol and estrogen. The fact that these reactions use up energy means that your body has to burn calories around the clock even if you’re vegging on the couch, says Georgie Fear, R.D., a Canada-based registered dietitian and author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss.
Called your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the number of calories that you burn just to stay alive accounts for 60 to 75 percent of your total daily calorie burn, according to a review in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Your BMR is driven by many different variables, and most of them are beyond your control (think: sex, age, and height). The main determinant of BMR is lean body mass, which includes weight not only from muscle, but also the weight of your bones and organs. In fact, a PLOS ONE study found that organ weight explains 43 percent of the differences between people’s resting metabolic rates.
These and other differences are the reason you shouldn’t expect to burn calories at the same rate as someone who’s a foot taller and 40 pounds heavier than you, says Tim Church, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., professor of preventative medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. Think about it: Bigger, heavier things require more energy to power them. For example, a semi-truck will always need more gas than a moped.
That said, there are expert- and research-backed strategies you can use to speed up your metabolism, whether that means burning more calories at rest or increasing daily expenditure with standby methods like exercise and physical activity. And while none of them will act as a magic weight-loss pill, when combined, small changes can lead to big results.
The single best way to speed up your metabolism and increase your daily caloric burn? Get moving. From walking to gardening to a structured exercise routine, the thermic effect of activity (TEA) is the most variable of all the pieces in your metabolism puzzle, according to a review in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. The review shows that TEA accounts for 15 to 30 percent of your total daily caloric expenditure. And, obviously, the more you move, the closer you’re going to get to that 30 percent.
Speed it up: To keep your body burning more calories throughout the day, move as much as possible, tracking your progress with a fitness tracker. One easy metric, of course, is steps. To reach your step goal, try walking to your coworker’s cubicle instead of emailing, pacing during phone calls, or taking a walk at lunchtime, says Michael R. Esco, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science at the University of Alabama. However, it’s important to remember that movement isn’t limited to steps. If you’re lifting weights, cycling, gardening, or cooking, you’re moving, which is one reason why some fitness trackers also allow you to set goals for the number of minutes you’ll move or hours you’ll stand per day. Consider setting a “move” reminder on yours to break up long hours spent sitting.
There are tons of great reasons to lift weights: improved bone density, stronger muscles, lower injury risk—and a speedier metabolism.
“The more muscle a person has, the more metabolically active they are,” Esco says. After all, a muscle burns more calories at rest than fat does. To put things into numbers, a pound of muscle burns approximately six calories per day, while a pound of fat burns roughly two, Church says. So, if you replace two pounds of fat with two pounds of muscle, you’ll increase your BMR by eight calories per day. Yeah, that’s not a ton, but it certainly adds up! Plus, when many women lose weight, they lose muscle in addition to fat, causing their basal metabolic rate to nosedive. Building muscle as you lose weight helps prevent any metabolic dips.
Speed it up: Dedicate at least two days per week to strength training, making sure to hit all the major muscle groups. To maximize muscle growth (also known as muscle hypertrophy), the American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing sets of six to 12 reps with a moderate weight, making sure to take a one- to two-minute rest in between sets. And don’t skimp on the protein if your goal is to pack on muscle. (More on protein next.)
One of the simplest ways to keep your metabolism revved up is to stay hydrated. When you’re dehydrated, organs including your liver operate less efficiently, causing your metabolism to slow in response, says Kendra Glassman M.S., R.D., C.N.S.C., a Denver-based registered dietitian. In fact, research from the University of Utah shows that losing just three percent of your body weight in water (for example, if you weigh 140 pounds, that’s 4.2 pounds) is enough to slow your resting metabolism by two percent. Plus, since dehydration can trigger fatigue and lower muscle function, not getting hitting your fluid goals can get in the way of your workouts, lunchtime walks, and other calorie-burning activities.
Speed it up: To keep your body hydrated and functioning properly, aim to drink at least eight 8- to 10-ounce glasses of water total per day, but keep in mind that this is just a starting point. “Everyone is going to be a little different,” Glassman says, and your water needs could increase if you exercised more vigorously than normal, or if you spent your day outside in the heat. To gauge how well-hydrated you are, use your urine as a guide. Thumbs-up if it’s clear or light yellow, she says.
Coffee lovers rejoice, your daily caffeine fix may be doing more than helping you through a mid-day slump. As a stimulant, caffeine energizes your digestive systems, speeding up the process of breaking down food for energy, Glassman says. The result: greater energy expenditure.
For example, one study in Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism found that drinking decaf coffee with 200 milligrams of added caffeine (roughly the equivalent of a 12-ounce cup of coffee) can increase metabolic rate by 3 to 11 percent for three hours. While 3 to 11 percent won’t make a huge difference in your metabolic rate over the short-term, it’s still one more tool you can add to your weight-loss strategy.
Speed it up: To boost your metabolism while curbing potential negative effects (like upset stomach and insomnia), limit caffeine consumption to 400 mg, or roughly four cups of coffee per day. Keep in mind: Research from the University of Florida shows that even decaf coffee can contain anywhere from 8.6 to 13.9 mg of caffeine, so make sure to account for decaf brew when tracking your daily consumption.
Spice burns more than just your tongue. Capsaicin, the compound that gives chili peppers their signature heat (and that makes you sweat) can increase heart rate and lower blood pressure, thereby making you burn more calories at rest, says Fear.
For example, in one American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, people who ingested capsinoids (compounds in chili peppers) every day for 12 weeks didn’t net a huge metabolic boost. However, they did decrease belly fat by nearly 3 percent. So, while you shouldn’t rely solely on spice to heat up your metabolism, it can be a helpful addition to any weight-loss plan.
Speed it up: Try dusting chili powder on cooked chicken or roasted veggies, or adding sliced peppers to soups and salads. Every little bit adds up.