Metabolic Primer Part 1 of 3 If You Can Measure It, You Can Manage It

By Pat Jak, BS, CPT, USAC II, USAC Power Based Training Coach

Tell me if this is you: you get frustrated when you hit a plateau?  Do you feel like you are working as hard as possible and yet don’t see any changes. This is often when I hear the following phrases:

  • My metabolism is out of control.
  • My metabolism makes my body want certain foods.
  • I’m getting old so my metabolism is slowing down.
  • I downloaded this app that tells me my metabolic rate.
  • Today I plan on getting a great metabolic workout.

Unfortunately, these phrases are a little misguided and further perpetuated thanks to news articles, morning talk shows, and other media blitzes that hit us daily. To make matters worse, we are told things like “If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t weigh yourself too often.” Or we are told, “good diets are effortless and we don’t have to count calories.” Um, excuse me but if I never weigh myself how do I know if I’ve lost weight? Also, if I’m not measuring how much I’m eating, how do I know I am sticking to my plan?

Diet and exercise changes require a high level of managing because you are trying to force change. And the best way to manage a process is to regularly measure progress. While I understand what people mean when they throw out these phrases, there are better ways we can empower ourselves and make positive changes to our health and fitness. And it comes from understanding a few key things about metabolism and measuring it to manage it.

Try not to get hung up in those over used phrases mentioned earlier because:

  • Metabolism is trainable. It CAN be changed. With exercise, healthy diet, and good lifestyle habits, you can maximize your metabolism!
  • Your metabolism doesn’t want certain foods. It just wants real, quality food. So FEED IT!
  • Metabolism does NOT slow down when we age. In reality, there is only a 2% loss every decade. We simply move LESS when we age. Move more and your metabolism increases no matter how old you are!
  • There is NOT an app for that! When you calculate your metabolic rate estimated by your age, height, weight, and gender, you can have a 1,000-calorie margin of error!
  • ALL workouts are metabolic! When you workout, you impact your metabolism.

Okay, I’ll spare you the detailed exercise physiology, but I do want to share a few key points to help shed some light on the confusion we face with our own metabolisms and how to overcome them to help build a leaner, healthier, happier you.

What is Metabolism?

Our metabolism is a collection of biochemical processes that combine nutrients with oxygen to release energy. This release of energy helps us grow, reproduce, maintain basic life processes, and respond to our environment. Metabolism is as individual as a fingerprint and is based on genetics, lifestyle, training, and nutrition.

Our metabolism will change. This is important because we use our fuel (food) differently when we are exercising and when we are at rest. Normally measured in calories, food and metabolism is simply a measurement of energy. In other words, some foods provide more energy than others and some activities burn more energy than others do. This does NOT mean you can eat whatever you want as long as “calories in” balance “calories out.” It also means you CANNOT exercise however you want and burn calories equally. Quality and type of food matters. Likewise, quality and type of workout is important to consider.

Is This What They Mean By Metabolic Rate?

Absolutely! And you actually have two basic metabolic rates that are most meaningful to your health and fitness goals, your Resting Metabolic Rate and your Active Metabolic Rate.

Your Resting Metabolic Rate

This is the amount of calories you use on a daily basis to maintain basic life functions including brain activity, liver function, lung function, and tissue growth and repair. It actually represents 60-75% of your total daily energy expenditure. The basics do apply. Eat more than your daily requirement and your body will store energy (gain weight). Eat below your daily requirement and your body will reduce it’s energy stores (lose weight).

It is important to note that if you are too aggressive with your daily calculations and fall below the very base resting metabolic number, you will negatively impact your body. This often occurs with crash diets, starvation diets, and insane Hollywood cleanses. But it can also occur when we “get too busy to eat,” skip meals, or only eat tiny portions.

Why should too little food matter? Remember that your resting metabolism is responsible for brain activity, lung function, and liver function. If you don’t feed these organs and allow them to do their thing, you will create catastrophic effects in your body and actually increase the aging process and risk for debilitating disease.

Your Active Metabolic Rate

This is your capacity for work during activities such as exercise. It can be shown through a correlation of three key markers. Among these are your AEROBIC Threshold. Representing the point when you utilize fat as a primary fuel source, Aerobic Threshold is the number you find on a new car’s sticker that shows best MPG.

Another marker is your ANAEROBIC Threshold, which is the point when you lose the ability to utilize oxygen and fat to create energy. Another way to look at it is your “redline.” You will be able to rev your engine at this level of intensity, but probably not for very long.

Finally, the number everyone likes to use to compare ability is your VO2max. While high-level athletes often rely on VO2max to determine competition readiness, it is important to everyone because it represents potential.

How Do I Know What My Metabolic Numbers Are?

There is only one true way. Get tested. If we are all individuals and our metabolisms reflect our individual characteristics and activities, wouldn’t you want to know your numbers? If simple little calculators can be off by 1,000 calories, wouldn’t you want to know your EXACT numbers?

Everyone has a benefit if they are tested regularly.

  • You can establish a baseline or snapshot of you right now.
  • You can identify your individual needs and what you want to achieve.
  • You can create a customized, periodized training plan to be better able to achieve your goals.
  • You can track progress and see how your metabolism changes over time.

A Case Study

Just to give an idea how important it is to test your metabolism, consider the following data from my own test taken last month.

  • Resting Metabolic Rate was ESTIMATED anywhere from 2,730-3,037 calories per day while the ACTUAL was 2,574.
  • VO2max was ESTIMATED at 36.6 mL/kg/min, while the ACTUAL was 67.5.
  • Threshold heart rate was ESTIMATED at 155 beats per minute while the ACTUAL was 160.

Why does this difference matter? If I had relied upon calculators to estimate the numbers that are most meaningful in my exercise and daily calorie intake, I would be spinning my wheels. The estimated versus actual numbers leads to a half-pound to a full pound difference per week. In 12-weeks of training, this is a 6-12 pound difference under or over my goal!

The exercise estimations lead to incorrect training levels and false estimations on how many calories I burn at different levels of intensities. In the same 12-weeks of training, this can lead to a difference of another 2 to 3 pounds. Why would I want to estimate and take the chance of gaining 8-14 pounds in 12 weeks?

Measuring versus estimation is ALWAYS more accurate. And when it comes to your metabolism, never assume. Never estimate. If you want to get on top of your health, fitness, and nutrition, know your numbers. And the best way to know your numbers is to test them. Because if you can measure it, you can manage it!

This is a three part series all about metabolism, how to test it, how to train it, and how to fuel it. Come back next time for Metabolic Primer 2: Using Cardio Training to Effectively Boost Your Metabolism Or…

What You Thought You Knew About Cardio Was Probably Wrong

About Pat Jak

For nearly a decade, Pat Jak has worked with performance athletes, teams, and fitness conscious individuals from all walks of life. With one-on-one consultation and customized training plans, he coaches and trains cyclists, multi-sport, and endurance athletes including beginners, juniors, seniors, and masters, several of whom are World, National and State champions and medallists. His workouts have been featured in Bicycling Magazine and he is currently Director of Metabolic Testing at Fitness Quest 10, Team Coach for the Swami’s Pro Development Team, Head Coach of the UCSD Cycling Team, and Coach for the Challenged Athletes Foundation Million Dollar Challenge.

To learn more, or to schedule your metabolic test, contact Fitness Quest 10.

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