Sheila Viers spent most of her high school, college, and young adult years searching for a successful weight-loss solution. “I wasted thousands of dollars on diets, programs, tests, pills, and supplements,” said the Los Angeles-based holistic health coach. “I eventually ended up having all sorts of digestive and hormonal issues. I went to doctors and alternative practitioners and couldn’t find a long-term fix. They just kept finding more and more things that ‘might’ be wrong. I remember feeling so defeated and hopeless.”
The turning point came when Viers stopped looking for some out-there answer and began tuning in to her own body. Her conclusion: The anxiety she was feeling was a factor in her lack of progress. “Stress blocks your system from being able to function optimally,” said Viers.
How stress affects your metabolism
Your central nervous system has two branches, the parasympathetic (think: peace) nervous system and the sympathetic (think: stress) nervous system. The two work like a switch – when one is turned on, the other is off.
The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the rapid release of stress hormones, slowed digestion, and faster breathing and heart rate. “This is the state you are in when you are speeding through your day stressed out and multitasking like crazy to get everything on your to-do list done,” Viers told Yahoo Health, adding that the human body isn’t built to operate in this constant state of stress. Our system gets out of whack – hormones go haywire, we don’t sleep well, we have major mood swings, and our metabolism slows down.
Muscle – your body’s metabolic machine
In addition, changes within your muscles and loss of muscle mass – due to aging, inactivity, doing the wrong kinds of activity, or some combination of those – also have a significant impact on your metabolism. “From age 20 to 60, relatively sedentary adults lose about 30 percent of their muscle mass,” said Tim Fischell, MD, professor of medicine at Michigan State University and author of Burn Calories While You Sleep. Muscle that hasn’t been actively stressed also burns about 30 percent fewer calories over three to four decades, he added.
“When you add up the loss of muscle and the loss of metabolic activity in the residual muscle that you have left, you are therefore looking at close to a 45 percent total loss of calorie burning between 20 and 60 to 70 years of age for relatively sedentary adults,” Fischell told Yahoo Health. “This is gradual and continuous starting in one’s 20s or 30s.”
Biopsies of sedentary adults in their 70s have also found a surprising discovery: Their muscle cells are actually missing mitochondria, the cellular powerhouses that convert fuel to energy. “As such, you are now not only lacking muscle fibers, but what you have left is metabolically inactive,” Fischell said.
Fortunately, these changes aren’t inevitable. Follow these tips to jump-start a sluggish metabolism.
Step 1. Give yourself a break
Do you always feel like you’re moving at 100 miles an hour, rushing from one task to the next? Your sympathetic nervous system is probably on overdrive. “I used to think I didn’t have time for things like a bubble bath, yoga, an hour of window-shopping at my favorite outdoor mall, or a massage, but now I realize that I don’t have time not to do these things,” Viers told Yahoo Health.
The key is to take responsibility for your own self-care, Viers explained. “You have nothing to give if your tank is empty, and it’s nobody else’s job to fill your tank but your own,” she said. “When you treat yourself with love and kindness, your body responds. It spends less time in the stress mode. When you’re not stressed, you open yourself up to not only feeling amazing but also freeing your body from the baggage of that stress, too.”
Step 2. Practice regular resistance training
Loss of muscle mass and strength is largely preventable and even reversible, Fischell said. However, low-intensity activities like walking – while they have other benefits – will have only minimal effects on muscle loss. “It requires high-intensity muscle stress, with strong muscle contraction and to the state of exhaustion of the muscle fibers, to rebuild metabolically active muscle and to rebuild muscle mass, regrow and retain mitochondria,” Fischell explained.
Research has consistently shown that resistance training, such as weightlifting, is an effective way to prevent these changes. But high-intensity activities like vigorous swimming, running, and power yoga may also delay muscle loss, Fischell added.
3. Stop feeling guilty about what you eat
When you eat under emotional or physical stress, your body never receives the signal to begin the digestive process. As a result, your body doesn’t digest food as well and may have problems processing the nutrients you need to function your best. “If you feel guilty about eating a food and you eat it anyway while feeling bad about it, the brain will send signals through the body via the sympathetic nervous system, causing digestion to shut down, which means it cannot fully metabolize the food,” Viers said. Her advice: Eat foods that you feel good about.