Metabolic slowdown is also known as ‘metabolic damage’ and is usually characterised by a plateau, slowdown or reversing of the fat burning process when attempting to improve body composition.
One of the things which I encounter on a very regular basis at the gym are people who spend literally hours training on the cardio equipment, are very disciplined with their diet, yet still don’t seem to be able to make any significant improvements in their body composition.
Metabolic slowdown is a natural end product of the eat less, exercise more culture which is commonly believed to lead to lower body fat % and a slimmer figure. It is also the reason why 1000’s of people chasing this reduction in body fat and slimmer figure will never achieve it.
I am going to explain how a long term program of increased energy expenditure and decreased food intake will affect a person’s hormonal function and ability to burn fat. I will then go into what can be done to fix a burnt out metabolism and get the body back into a position where it will burn fat effectively.
If you want to lose weight, or more specifically burn fat, then the first port of call for 99.9% of people would be either, cutting calories, increasing exercise or usually both at the same time.
The problem with this strategy is that it inevitably stalls or slow downs as your body adjusts to it. People then instinctively think that by cutting calories even more and/or exercising even more they will be able to restart the fat burning process. This is often not the case.
Your body needs a certain amount of net calories in order to function effectively. A body which is not functioning effectively will not burn fat because:
A body which is constantly underfed and overworked will be in a constant state of stress
A stressed body will constantly stimulate the sympathetic nervous system by firing adrenaline and releasing cortisol
Over time, as a defence mechanism, the body will cease to react to these stress hormones. Thyroid, reproductive organ and adrenal gland function will down-regulate with negative consequences for metabolism, muscle regeneration and fat burning
Training more and dieting even harder is then the equivalent of pushing the accelerator in a car which has its engine turned off. Nothing will happen.
As a result of having an overstressed, underfed body other systems may begin to be negatively impacted. Digestive health can suffer meaning that food intolerances can flare up and overall nutrient utilisation can go down, both of which will exacerbate the problem. Sexual and reproductive health can also be heavily impacted by this chain of events. Obviously energy levels will be screwed leading to poor concentration, low levels of productivity, irritability and mood swings.
So this may sound familiar to some of you. The question now is what you can do if you find yourself in this situation.
Many people offset the above behaviours with a regular period of binge eating or falling off the wagon in terms of their diet. This will overload the now underperforming metabolic system and all of the extra calories taken on in this binge are stored as fat. It is then extremely difficult to burn that stored fat as you have an underperforming or defunct metabolism.
The solution however DOES lie in eating more, just in a more structured fashion.
Your aim now is to gently up-regulate all of those systems which have down-regulated as a result of over training/under recovering. This means getting yourself back into a healthy situation where you can look to improve your body composition without compromising your health, well being or performance.
First of all I would take at least a full week off from training. Give your body a complete rest bar any exercise you do through work. This may be a struggle for those of you who love training but it is key to kickstarting your recovery.
It may be handy at this point to work out your Base Metabolic Rate – this is how many calories you should be eating on a daily basis just to maintain basic bodily function, not taking into account physical activity.
Then work out roughly how many calories you are taking in daily at the moment with your current diet.
For example we will look at a current intake of 1000 calories a day versus a BMR of 1500 calories.
In this example the idea is to rebuild the diet gradually from the current intake of 1000 calories until your body can cope with 1500 calories per day without storing fat. Too much too soon will lead to rapid weight gain.
50/100 calories extra intake per week would be a good start. If this results in a significant amount of fat being stored then I would advise to keep the calories up but re-engage in some moderate exercise to offset it and then look to up your calories again once your body has adjusted and weight is stable.
Over time this increase in calories will up-regulate hormones, digestive health should improve, energy levels should improve and slowly your body should begin to function normally again. A small gain in body fat is a small price to pay for the overall health benefits. Body composition can be improved much more effectively further down the line.
BMR calorie intake is not your target however as this does not take into account the thermogenic effect of food (roughly 10% for fats and carbs, 30% for protein) or anything other than basic bodily function, obviously we are looking to be active and have the energy to train hard so...
Now you need to calculate your adjusted BMR by multiplying your BMR by the below Activity Factor relative to your lifestyle:
Little or no exercise and desk job
Light exercise or sports 1-3 days a week
Moderate exercise or sports 3-5 days a week
Hard exercise or sports 6-7 days a week4
Hard daily exercise or sports and physical job
This will give you the real target for your daily calorie intake. So using our example a BMR of 1500 for someone who is moderately active would result in an adjusted BMR of 2325 calories (1.55 x 1500). So this is the new target for daily calorie intake as you build back up to a moderately active lifestyle.
Continue as outlined above with gradual calorie increases offset with exercise when needed until your body is functioning at the full adjusted BMR.
You should be concentrating on restoring health and wellbeing so instead of using your usual markers for success such as weight, body fat % or distance ran/calories burned at the gym you should be concentrating more on Bio Feedback so things like hunger, energy levels, sleep patterns, sexual health, digestive health, mental clarity and mood. These are true indicators of whether or not you are healthy and if you look after these health markers then improved body composition will follow.
Now that you have restored hormonal balance, up-regulated your metabolism and your digestive system is operating as it should be then you can then begin to look at strategies to improve body composition if you so wish, however make sure not to fall back into old habits of over training, under eating and under recovery.