Read on for some medically proven moves that'll make it happen -- and help you drop some pounds
Wouldn't it be nice if you could eat whatever you wanted, blow off working out and still fit in your skinny jeans? While that's unlikely, it is possible to speed up your metabolism, that little engine in your body that burns calories. As you age, your metabolism slows down, chiefly because you lose around a half pound of muscle each year. "If you don't use the muscle, it atrophies," explains Pamela Peeke, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and author of Fight Fat After Forty. That translates into burning about 400 fewer calories each day, which could mean gaining a pound a week. But there's plenty you can do to rev your fat-burning furnace back up again, says Peeke. Here's the skinny:
Stock up on green tea
Green tea isn't known only for its cancer-fighting benefits: It may help boost your metabolism, too. People who took green-tea extract three times a day saw their metabolic rate increase by about 4 percent, according to a study published in the December 1999 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (Translation: You could burn an extra 60 calories a day, which equals about six pounds a year!) It may be because green tea contains catechins, which increase levels of the metabolism-speeding brain chemical norepinephrine, says Joy Bauer, a New York City nutritionist and author of Cooking with Joy.
Weight training is the ultimate way to burn calories fast. "A pound of muscle burns up to nine times the calories of a pound of fat," explains Richard Cotton, M.A., chief exercise physiologist. Weight training increases your resting metabolic rate, which is the number of calories you burn while sitting on your butt. What's more, it gives your metabolism an added boost after you exercise: It remains in overdrive for up to two hours after the last bench press, according to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Strapped for time? Try these quick moves: squats, bench step-ups, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups and crunches. In a pinch, just do single sets of 10 for each exercise -- you'll get optimal results for the time invested.
Yeah, we just told you to pump iron, but you also need to eat it. "If you don't have enough of this mineral, your body can't get enough oxygen to your cells, which slows down your metabolism," explains Samantha Heller, R.D., a nutritionist at the New York University Medical Center. Most multivitamins contain around 18 mg (the RDA for adults); you can also get your fill by eating three to four daily servings of foods rich in iron, such as lean red meat, chicken, fortified cereal and soy nuts. If you are feeling symptoms such as fatigue and weakness, ask your doctor to test you for anemia (it's a simple blood test) at your next physical.
Order water -- and ask for a refill
A new German study found that when you drink 17 ounces of water (about two glasses) within a certain time frame, your metabolic rate shoots up by about 30 percent. Using these results, they estimate that by increasing your current water intake by 1.5 liters a day, a person would burn an extra 17,400 calories a year, resulting in about a five-pound weight loss.
Get your thyroid checked
Suspect you have a sluggish metabolism? You might have hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland, which afflicts about 25 percent of American women -- many of whom don't know they have the condition, according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. "The thyroid gland controls your body's metabolism, so one of the first signs that it may be off is an inability to lose weight," explains Peeke. Your doctor can determine if you're suffering from hypothyroidism by running a blood test. If you do have an underactive thyroid, you'll be treated with a synthetic thyroid supplement, which you will need to take for the rest of your life (it will return your metabolism to normal, so it should be easier to lose weight).
Want to keep your favorite meals from going straight to your hips (thighs, belly)? Wash them down with water, not wine. Alcohol slows your metabolism by depressing the central nervous system. A British study found that when alcohol was added to a high-fat, high-calorie meal, less dietary fat was burned off and more was stored as body fat.
Rev up your workouts
Interval training -- in which you add bursts of high-intensity moves into your workout -- is a surefire metabolism booster, says Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D., director of the Kinesiology Program at the University of Virginia and author of The Spark. Researchers at Laval University in Quebec found that high-intensity interval training burns more fat than regular, consistent aerobic exercise. If you usually jog at a 10-minute-mile pace, for example, add a 30-second sprint every five minutes. Or add a one-minute incline to your treadmill workout every five minutes. "Even if you just have 10 minutes for a quick workout, you can walk at a normal pace and then add in a 30-second bout of speed-walking every three minutes," recommends Gaesser.
Do more dairy
Women who ate low-fat dairy products, such as nonfat yogurt and low-fat cheese, three to four times a day lost 70 percent more fat than low-dairy dieters, according to a study published in the journal Obesity Research. "Calcium serves as a switch that tells your body to burn excess fat faster," explains study author Michael Zemel, M.D., director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Sorry, but you won't reap the same benefits from calcium-fortified O.J. Research shows that you get the best results from dairy products themselves, not fortified foods. Aim for 1,200 mg, which includes about three servings of dairy a day.
Take up a new sport
Are you like Old Faithful when it comes to your morning walk or evening jog? Know this: The more you do an activity, the more your body adapts to it, so you burn fewer calories. If you want to light a fire under your metabolism, consider cross-training. For example, if you normally walk, try biking instead. "Since you're not used to working all those different muscles, it's a more intense workout, which can translate into a greater metabolic after-burn because your body is working harder to recover and get oxygen to all your tissues," says Carol Espel, M.S., an exercise physiologist for Equinox Fitness Clubs in New York City.
Break out the lemon wedges: Regular fish eaters tend to have lower levels of the hormone leptin -- good because high levels of leptin have been linked to low metabolism and obesity, says Louis Aronne, M.D., an obesity specialist at the New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. Try to consume three to four servings of a fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna or mackerel, each week.
Stress may contribute to abdominal fat, according to several studies, including a recent one at the University of California, San Francisco. "When you're stressed, hormones like cortisol stimulate your appetite, slow your metabolism down and encourage fat storage inside your abdomen," explains Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., director of the Nutrition Clinic at the University of Utah. So what's a frazzled girl to do? "Find an activity that reduces stress for you, whether it's listening to soothing music or taking yoga, and do it daily," advises Talbott.
Have a PB & J
Think peanut butter is only for pint-sized palates? Think again. PB is rich in magnesium, a mineral that motors up your metabolism by giving your cells energy. Aim for 320 mg a day of magnesium: Good food sources include a peanut butter sandwich made with whole-wheat bread (100 mg) or spinach (1/2 cup has 80 mg).
Exercise off that PMS (menstruating women only)
You could lose more weight exercising during the later phase of your menstrual cycle than at any other time in your cycle, according to a recent study from the University of Adelaide in Australia. Hormones estrogen and progesterone fire up your fat-burning furnace: They promote your body's use of fat as an energy supply, so more is burned off when you exercise. "Women burned about 30 percent more fat for the two weeks following ovulation to about two days before menstruation," explains study author Leanne Redman.
Don't blow off breakfast
Studies show that eating breakfast plays a part in successful weight loss -- almost 80 percent of people who successfully keep weight off chow down on this meal, according to a study published in Obesity Research. "Your metabolism slows as you sleep, and the process of digesting food revs it up again," explains Heller. Aim for a 300- to 400-calorie breakfast, such as a high-fiber cereal (another metabolism booster) with skim milk and fruit.
Pump up protein
Not in an extreme, Atkins sort of way, but having a little protein at every meal fires up your metabolism. "Your digestive system uses more energy to break it down, so you burn more calories," explains Lisa Dorfman, R.D. However, keep protein levels to between 20 and 35 percent of your diet; eating too much of it can cause kidney strain and may cause your body to store too much fat.
Snack away during the day
Grazing is a surprisingly good idea because it helps you avoid metabolic slowdown. "Your body will be tricked into thinking it's constantly eating, so it will never slow your metabolism down," explains Bauer. Aim for five small meals (200 to 500 calories) a day rather than three large ones. Also try not to go more than four hours without eating -- if you eat breakfast at 7am, for example, have a snack at 10am, lunch at noon, another snack at 3pm and dinner at 7pm.
Skip the starch
Carb crazy? Consider this: Refined carbohydrates, such as bread, potatoes and rice, create a surge in insulin that in turn drives down your resting metabolic rate, explains Aronne. "It's important to keep carbohydrates in your diet, but really focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which have less of an effect on insulin levels," he explains. And when buying whole-grain breads and cereals, make sure the first ingredient listed is whole wheat, whole oat or cracked wheat.
Break up your workouts
Try dividing your workouts into two shorter 20-minute sessions. You'll rev up your metabolism for an hour or two after each workout, which means you'll burn more calories than if you did one longer session. Don't have time? Even small bursts of activity will get your metabolism chugging again, according to a study in Nature. "Just a five-minute walk around the house every hour translates into an extra 200 to 300 calories burned every day," says Peeke.
Pace while you're on the phone
People who are constantly in motion -- crossing and uncrossing their legs, stretching and pacing -- burn more calories. When researchers at the Mayo Clinic asked subjects to eat an additional 1,000 calories a day for eight weeks, they found that only the nonfidgeters stored the calories as fat.
Eat more bananas
They're full of potassium, which revs up your metabolism by regulating your body's water balance, says vitamin expert Susan Lark, M.D., author of The Lark Letter. If you're dehydrated, you'll burn fewer calories. Make sure you're getting at least 2,000 mg: a banana has 450 mg, a cup of milk has 370 mg and an orange has 250 mg.
Get enough z's
Yeah, Russell Crowe may be on Letterman, but it's way more important for your waistline if you don't stay up. A study at the University of Chicago Medical Center found that people who got only four hours of sleep had much more difficulty processing carbs. The culprit? Increased levels of insulin and the stress hormone cortisol. "When you're exhausted, your body lacks the energy to do its normal day-to-day functions, which includes burning calories efficiently," says Talbott. So the best way to make sure your metabolism runs smoothly is to get six to eight hours of shut-eye each night.