Metabolic health is critical for overall health, and certain lifestyle habits can help you get there.
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It feels like everybody's always talking about ways to boost or improve their metabolism, as if doing so were as simple as turning on your coffee maker. When people refer to metabolism, they're really talking about metabolic rate, which, in simplest terms, is the number of calories you burn every day. Think of those calories like money. "You can be in surplus, which means you store calories, mainly as fat, or you might be in deficit, meaning that you've used up your stores, just as you might your bank account," says Marc Hellerstein, MD, PhD, professor of human nutrition at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of endocrinology, metabolism, and nutrition at the University of California at San Francisco.  

The truth is, however, that metabolism is a little bit trickier than just that. It absolutely is possible to boost your metabolism, but it's not quite as easy as flipping a switch. Here's what you need to know.

Understanding Metabolism

Metabolism comes from a Greek word, "metabolismo," which means change. "It's the totality of all chemical reactions in your body and ultimately refers to energy balance," says Brian Fertig, MD, F.A.C.E., endocrinologist, founder and president of the Diabetes & Osteoporosis Center, and chair of the department of endocrinology at Hackensack Meridian Health at JFK University Medical Center in Edison, N.J.  

Because that energy balance impacts weight, most people lump metabolism into one of two buckets: slow or fast. "The colloquial understanding of 'having a slow metabolism' equates to the tendency to gain weight without overeating, whereas 'having a fast metabolism' equates to the ability to overeat without gaining weight," Dr. Fertig says.

But it's not just about weight—metabolic health encompasses your whole body. "Your metabolism is the set of cellular mechanisms that generate energy from your food and environment in order to power every single cell in the body," says Casey Means, MD, cofounder and chief medical officer of Levels Health in Portland, Ore. When those energy-producing pathways run smoothly, you experience optimal metabolic health, something that's foundational for overall well-being.

As a result, your body is able to use glucose or fat efficiently for energy while keeping your insulin and blood sugar levels steady, Dr. Means says. You have emotional resilience, a vitalized mood, and cognitive focus, Dr. Fertig says, adding that "your weight is stable, your strength and endurance are robust, and you have good tolerance to wide ranges of food in the absence of indigestion or bloating." 

On the flip side, when you don't have good metabolic health, your cells—namely the energy-producing powerhouses inside of cells called mitochondria—can't produce the energy they need to operate properly, and dysfunction and disease can set in. Studies show that 88 percent of Americans aren't metabolically healthy, thanks to the modern Western diet and lifestyle. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer's, dementia, fatty liver disease, depression, cancer, infertility, and erectile dysfunction are all linked to problems with metabolism.

You don't even need a doctor to determine this, as there's a wide range of symptoms that indicate less-than-ideal metabolic health, Dr. Means says. These include stubborn excess weight that's tough to lose, depression or anxiety, persistent cravings for carbohydrates or sugar, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraines, and acne.

So how do you achieve a healthy metabolism or improve metabolism for your body? "Anything you can do to improve the efficiency and quantity of your mitochondria helps you be metabolically healthy," Dr. Means says. That's right, as crazy as it sounds, you need to put your cells' mitochondria front and center because they lie at the core of a healthy metabolism. Here are some healthy lifestyle habits that support good metabolism.

How to Boost Your Metabolism

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1 Build lean muscle tissue.

Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend not only doing aerobic activity, but also strength training, and there's a good reason for that. "The more lean tissue you have, the more calories you burn, which is why strong people burn more calories just sitting around," Dr. Hellerstein explains. One of the best ways to build lean muscle is resistance training. Every 2 pounds of increased muscle on your body will burn an additional 90 calories a day, increasing your resting metabolic rate, Dr. Fertig says. Aim to do three strength training workouts a week, recommends Dr. Hellerstein. Doing yoga can also increase muscle mass.

RELATED: 8 Bodyweight Exercises You Can Do Anywhere

2 Get your heart pumping.

According to Dr. Hellerstein, burning about 3,000 calories per week through voluntary exercise is a healthy goal for achieving a healthy metabolism. That's the equivalent of walking about four miles a day. If that's too daunting, follow exercise guidelines by doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity five times a week. And don't forget to move more throughout the day, taking brief walks after meals or two-minute walks every half hour, Dr. Means says.

3 Eat more fiber.

Studies show that Americans get only 15 grams of fiber a day, even though dietary guidelines recommend that women get at least 25 grams and men get 38. Plants are really the only source of fiber, so by eating more plants, you'll naturally get more fiber. "Fiber slows digestion and may prevent some glucose from being absorbed through digestion," Dr. Means says. "It also supports a healthy microbiome, which has a strong impact on metabolic health and inflammation." Some of the richest sources of fiber include chia seeds, basil seeds, flax seeds, beans, lentils, avocado, and some fruits, especially raspberries.

RELATED: 13 Wholesome (and Easy) Recipes That Are Packed With Fiber

4 Eat less sugar.

Time to rein in that sugar intake if you want to boost your metabolic health. In the short-term, excess sugar can lead to mid-day energy crashes, cravings, and anxiety. Long-term, it can lead to damage and inflammation that contributes to issues like heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's, and dementia. To remedy this, eliminate foods that contain more than 2 to 3 grams of added sugar per serving, though zero is better, Dr. Means says. Then avoid overconsuming foods with refined white flour, which turn into sugar in the body. Sadly, that includes pastries, cookies, cakes, tortillas, pastas, and bread.

5 Sip water.

You've heard it a million times, but there's good reason to drink two liters (or eight eight-ounce glasses) of water a day to stave off dehydration. "That can slow metabolic rate by not allowing sugar and fat to reach muscle where it would otherwise be metabolized," Dr. Fertig says.

6 Seek morning light.

By getting direct sunlight first thing in the morning (and avoiding excess artificial light near bedtime), you'll be aiding your metabolism. "It signals to the brain what time of day it is and sets your body up to time genetic and hormonal signals that appropriately regulate metabolism," Dr. Means explains. Every morning, go outside for a few minutes (even if it's cloudy—although you might have to stay out a little longer for optimal effects). 

7 Make sleep a priority.

Your health—and your metabolism—depends on proper sleep. "Even one night of short sleep, or just going to bed at a different time than normal, can decrease insulin sensitivity and contribute to higher stress hormones and glucose spikes the next day," Dr. Means says. Health experts generally recommend that adults sleep for seven to nine hours a night. If you're really struggling to sleep, talk with your physician to sort out underlying issues disrupting your rest.

RELATED: 11 Healthy Habits That Can Actually Help You Sleep Better

8 Avoid toxins whenever possible.

It's nearly impossible in today's world to avoid toxins, but do your best. "Many of the toxins in your food, personal care products, water, and air can be damaging to your metabolic health," Dr. Means says. To reduce metabolically disruptive chemicals, opt for organic food when possible, eliminate home or personal care products that include fragrance (choose unscented), use less plastic to store food, water, and other products in the home, and invest in a high-quality air filter.