Metabolism gets hyped concerning fat burning and weight loss, but the effects go far beyond that. While particular workout styles promise to boost your metabolism and burn calories, your metabolic health is more complex than sweating it out in the gym and how quickly you blitz calories.
We spoke to Lauren Kelley-Chew, head of the revolutionary metabolic health and glucose monitoring technology, Levels, to find out what metabolic health is and how your metabolism might impact — and be impacted by — your workouts.
What does metabolism mean?
According to Kelley-Chew, your metabolism is the set of biochemical processes that convert the food you eat into energy for your cells; this powers every bodily process, but when these energy-producing processes run optimally, you have metabolic health.
What is metabolic health?
We need to know how metabolism works. “Since every cell in our body requires energy to function, metabolic health is foundational for wellbeing,” says Kelley-Chew. “Good metabolic health can result in stable energy and mood, sharp memory, a strong immune system, healthy weight, improved fertility and sexual health, and lower risk of many chronic diseases like Diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Basically, it keeps you functioning. But while the science of metabolic health is still evolving, people are often considered “metabolically healthy” if they have optimal levels of five markers:
- Blood sugar
- Triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood)
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) “good” cholesterol
- Blood pressure
- Waist circumference
And this should be without medication like statins which could raise blood sugar levels. “We can improve most of these markers through lifestyle changes and by consistently making choices that keep glucose levels in a stable and healthy range,” says Kelley-Chew.
How metabolic health affects your fitness
Your physical fitness and metabolic health are closely linked. “Exercise like walking, jogging, high-intensity interval training, and resistance training can improve your cells’ ability to take up and utilize glucose which improves your metabolic fitness,” explains Kelley-Chew.
“Metabolic fitness, in terms, can improve both physical and mental performance. So, metabolic health and physical fitness are synergistic. Both improve the other and create a virtuous cycle.”
It’s worth noting that exercise in any form is beneficial, and emerging research shows that even short bouts of exercise throughout the day can impact metabolic health. For example, this study compared three exercise timing regimens:
- 20 minutes of jogging before each meal
- 20 minutes of jogging after each meal, or
- Short bursts of jogging for three minutes repeated 20 times a day
The results showed that short bursts were far more effective at reducing post-meal glucose spikes, which could help you plan your exercise around diet, and vice versa. You can also find the best time to drink a protein shake here if you’re unsure when to pack your protein fix in.
Can you boost metabolism and improve metabolic health?
If you’re wondering how to increase metabolism? Kelley-Chew tells us that, similar to physical fitness, you can condition metabolism through diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management. “If you make daily choices that support metabolic processes, the cellular “machinery” in your body that converts glucose to energy becomes more efficient and promotes long-term health.”
Although we often take the approach that you get the metabolism you’re given, it’s totally possible to develop better metabolic fitness, which can also help your body achieve something called “metabolic flexibility” — your ability to switch easily between fat and glucose, depending on availability.
This flexibility can help give you more energy even when training in a fasted state because your body can tap into fat stores. Kelley-Chew adds that flexibility also helps avoid the excessive hunger, fatigue, and weight gain that can happen when your body is too reliant on glucose.
So, what’s the game plan? To get metabolically fit, consider what to eat (find out if you should eat before or after a workout) and the factors above. “A single blood sugar spike or poor night’s sleep is not something to worry about, but you can learn from your lifestyle habits,” she adds.
If you struggle with stress levels, this expert says it could be your workout depending on how you train, and we also swear by Chris Hemsworth’s 5-minute breathing exercise to relax.
Ways to boost metabolic health
Research shows that real-time feedback on glucose levels can encourage you to improve metabolic health. Kelley-Chew tells us that a study has shown wearing a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) reduced blood glucose and weight levels. “Another study concluded CGM is associated with individuals upping the intensity level of their exercise and can lead to significant increases in total exercise time per week.”
Again, making incremental changes to diet, increasing exercise levels, and prioritizing sleep and stress levels are crucial ways to get control over your metabolic health. One of our writers used this Lumen device to track metabolism for a month, and this smart ring offers fitness tracking, including your metabolism.
Lauren Kelley-Chew, MD is the head of clinical products at Levels. Prior to Levels, Lauren led Strategy & BizOps at Verily Life Sciences and founded a Y Combinator-backed digital therapeutics start-up. Lauren graduated from medical school at UPenn, where she was a Gamble Scholar.