Many of us will be familiar with the fact that as we age, we can’t eat like our younger selves once did. This is because your metabolism – the rate at which your body burns energy – naturally slows down with age. Generally, this makes it easier to gain weight, and harder to lose it.
However, the good news is that it’s possible to boost your metabolism by making a few positive lifestyle changes.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at what metabolism is, how it changes with age, and what you can do to help boost yours.
What is your metabolism?
In simple terms, metabolism refers to all of the chemical reactions that occur in your body to keep you alive and functioning. These processes include breathing, heartbeat, and breaking down of nutrients from food. Your metabolism essentially determines how quickly your body burns energy to complete these functions.
Ultimately, the faster your metabolism, the more calories you burn, the easier it is to lose weight, and the more energetic you’re likely to feel.
The speed of your metabolism is influenced by four main factors:
Resting metabolic rate (RMR) – the amount of calories you burn while resting. Your RMR is essentially the least amount of calories needed to keep your body alive and functioning.
Thermic effect of food (TEF) – how many calories you burn through digesting and absorbing food. TEF usually accounts for 10% of daily calories burned.
Exercise – the amount of calories you burn through exercise.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) – how many calories you burn doing non-exercise activities, such as standing, moving around, hoovering, and other household chores.
Other factors that influence metabolism include age, gender, height, muscle mass, and hormonal factors. Metabolism naturally slows down with age for various reasons, including reduced activity levels, muscle loss, and ageing of internal body processes.
But while some of the factors affecting metabolism – like gender and height – are out of our control, others – such as activity level – often aren’t. So, by making certain lifestyle changes, it’s possible to boost your metabolism.
9 ways to boost your metabolism over 50
Overall, research has shown that being less active and losing muscle mass have the greatest effect on your metabolism. So becoming more active and building muscle are among the most important things you can do to give yours a boost.
However, there are also various other things you can do too. We’ll cover these below.
1. Consider taking up strength training
As we age, we lose muscle mass as a result of an age-related process called sarcopenia. This reduction in muscle mass can also slow down your metabolism, because muscle uses a lot more energy at rest than fat.
Sarcopenia usually begins around the age of 50 – and after this, it’s estimated that a person’s muscle mass decreases by around 1-2% each year, and muscle strength at a rate of 1.5-5% each year. In fact, research shows that by the age of 80, people have roughly 30% less muscle than when they were 20.
Strength training offers the usual benefits of exercise – including improved cardiovascular health – while also building and preserving muscle mass. Research has shown that over time, this can boost metabolism and increase the amount of calories you burn throughout the day. For example, this study of 15 people aged 61-77 found that strength training three times a week for six months increased their resting metabolic rate (RMR) by 6.8%.
Another plus is that strength training can also help people retain muscle and metabolism speed during weight loss (where metabolism usually drops). This study, which followed overweight women on a weight loss programme, found those who did strength training retained their muscle mass, metabolism, and strength alongside weight loss – while the others lost muscle mass and experienced a drop in metabolism.
For more information on the importance of strength training, you might want to have a read of our article The importance of building strength and balance in your 50s and 60s.
2. Increase your daily activity levels
Your daily activity levels have a significant impact on the speed of your metabolism. Research shows that together, exercise and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), make up roughly 10-30% of daily calories burned. For very active people, this number can stretch as high as 50%.
According to Age UK, 29% of people aged 65 to 74 are physically inactive. And this number jumps to 47% for people aged 75 to 84, and 70% for those over 85.
Incorporating more exercise into your daily routine can make a significant difference in helping to prevent a drop in your metabolism. For instance, this study of healthy young adults (21-35) and mature adults (50-72) showed that taking part in regular endurance exercise prevents metabolism from slowing down with age.
If you haven’t yet found a form of exercise that you love, why not head over to the fitness and exercise section of our site? Here you’ll find guides on everything from running and cycling, to walking football, and yoga.
3. Consume plenty of protein
The speed of your metabolism can increase for a few hours after eating because of the extra calories needed to digest, absorb, and process the nutrients in your meal. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF).
Protein causes the largest rise in TEF – and increases your metabolic rate by 15-30%, compared with 5-10% for carbohydrates and 0-3% for fats. Interestingly, studies have found that consuming 25-30% of your calories from protein can help you burn an extra 80-100 calories per day.
Research has also shown that eating protein can help to keep you more full and prevent overeating. For example, this study found that people were likely to eat around 441 calories less per day when their diet was made up of 30% protein.
Eating more protein can also help to reduce the drop in metabolism linked with weight loss, and is essential in fighting sarcopenia because it plays an important role in preserving muscle.
Examples of high protein foods include eggs, yoghurt, seafood, soya, chicken, tofu, beans, and pulses. For cooking inspiration, why not try some of these healthy high-protein recipes from Delicious, or these high-protein vegan recipes from BBC Good Food if you follow a plant-based diet?
4. Fix your sleeping schedule
Research shows that a lack of sleep can slow down your metabolism, while getting a good night’s sleep can reverse this effect.
Sleep is intrinsically involved in various hormonal and metabolic processes, and sleep deprivation has been shown to cause abnormalities in the metabolic process. For example, this study found that the metabolisms of people who got just four hours of sleep were 2.6% slower than those who got ten hours of sleep. Fortunately, getting a long night’s sleep (12 hours) helped to restore metabolism.
Another reason sleep can impact metabolism is that poor sleep can lead to muscle loss, which slows down your resting metabolic rate (RMR).
While further research is needed, mounting evidence also suggests that sleep and misaligned circadian rhythms contribute to the development of metabolic disorders, heart disease, and cancer.
Getting a good night’s sleep can also help prevent overeating. This is because a lack of sleep not only impacts energy levels but also increases levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, while decreasing the fullness hormone leptin.
If you have trouble falling, or staying asleep, you’ll find useful advice on how to fix your sleeping patterns in the sleep and fatigue section of our site.
5. Make an effort to drink more cold water
Research has suggested that drinking water can temporarily speed up your metabolism.
For example, this study recorded that drinking 0.5 litres of water can increase resting metabolic rate by around 10-30% for up to an hour. For even greater effects, it’s recommended that the water you drink is cold. This is because the body will have to use extra energy to heat the water up to body temperature.
Another benefit of drinking more water is that it helps to fill you up, and various studies have shown that drinking water half an hour before you eat can help prevent overeating. For example, this study of overweight adults found that those who drank half a litre of water before eating lost 44% more weight than those who didn’t.
6. Try drinking more green tea or oolong tea
If you often enjoy a warm cup of tea, then you’ll be pleased to know that your habit could help to speed up your metabolism. Green tea and oolong tea (traditional Chinese tea) especially, have been shown to increase metabolism speed by around 4-5%.
These teas help to convert some of the fat stored in our bodies into free fatty acids, which can increase fat burning by around 10-17%. Plus, since green and oolong tea are so low in calories, they can also be a handy tool for weight loss and weight maintenance.
7. Introduce more spicy foods into your diet
Peppers contain capsaicin – a substance that can boost metabolism. However, due to its strong taste, many people can’t tolerate this spice at the dose required to have a significant effect.
However, this study of capsaicin (eaten at normal doses) suggested that eating peppers would still burn around 10 additional calories each meal. Over a period of 6.5 years, this would account for about one pound of weight loss for a man of average weight.
While the effect of adding spices to your food alone may be quite small, incorporating more over time can lead to small advantages when combined with other metabolism-boosting strategies.
8. Stand instead of sit
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) refers to the number of calories burned through activities other than exercise, for example, standing and completing household chores. Research has shown that older adults burn roughly 29% fewer calories through NEAT due to reduced activity levels.
Aside from incorporating exercise into your daily routine, there are other small beneficial changes you can make to your lifestyle too. For example, you could start by making a conscious effort to spend more of your day standing.
Not only is sitting down for long periods bad for our health, it also burns fewer calories. While small changes like these may not seem that significant, research suggests that an afternoon of standing up at work can burn an extra 174 calories compared to sitting down.
If you have a fairly sedentary desk job, you could consider buying a standing desk. Equally, if you commute to work by train, why not try standing up for some of the journey instead?
9. Start your day with a coffee
Various studies have shown that the caffeine in coffee can boost metabolism by 3-11% and promote fat burning. Coffee’s effect on metabolism and fat burning may also contribute to successful weight loss and maintenance.
However, the effect of coffee on metabolism speed seems to be greater on people who are lean. For instance, in this study, coffee increased fat burning by 29% for lean women, but only 10% for obese women.
According to experts, up to 400mg of caffeine (around four cups) a day appears to be a safe amount for most healthy adults. To avoid disrupted sleep, it’s recommended not to drink coffee less than six hours before bedtime.
While it’s natural for your metabolism to slow down with age, there are many things you can do to counteract this.
And more positive news is that the benefits of making simple lifestyle changes, like taking up strength training, becoming more active, and fixing your sleeping habits, will not only work to boost your metabolism, but do good in other areas of your life too.
What steps have you taken to boost your metabolism? What do you find most effective? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the health section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.