How Athletes Can Fix Metabolic Damage

Metabolic damage, starvation mode, and weight loss resistance are interchangeable terms used to describe a slowed metabolism. Some active adults and athletes struggle with losing weight and changing their body composition (such as adding muscle and losing fat). Regardless of how much they exercise or how they change their diet, for some, reducing body fat seems impossible. 

To fix a slowed metabolism or overcome a weight-loss plateau, you likely need to cut back on exercise and eat more instead of less. This approach may seem counter-intuitive, but slow and steady wins the race when it comes to working with your metabolism instead of against it.

Understanding Metabolism

Low section of man checking weight on scale in gym
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The first step to working with your metabolism is to understand how metabolism works, including the definition of some basic terms.

  • Resting metabolic rate (RMR) or basal metabolic rate (BMR): The rate at which the body burns energy (calories) at rest, or in a non-exercise state; these two terms are often used interchangeably. These basic metabolic processes (like breathing!) use between 50% and 70% of the calories we consume.
  • Activity energy expenditure (AEE): The rate of calories or energy the body uses during physical activity such as purposeful exercise. Typically, this figure represents approximately 20% of a day's calories—again depending on activity level. An athlete may expend as much as 50% of their daily calories during exercise.
  • Thermic effect of food (TEF): The rate of calories or energy required to digest, absorb, and distribute nutrients. This accounts for approximately 10% to 20% of daily total energy expenditure and varies per macronutrient. Protein requires higher TEF than carbohydrates or fat.

Factors That Affect Metabolism

Many factors can alter metabolism, including food intake and increased exercise. For example, restrictive diets can slow metabolism. Your body wants to make sure it has enough energy to run efficiently, which is reflected in how it responds to changes in calorie consumption, exercise, weight loss, and stress.

Diet

Eating causes a lowered energy output because the digestive process burns calories. Consuming insufficient calories, coupled with the thermic effect of food, can leave the body in starvation mode.  

Exercise

Increased exercise can also alter metabolism. If you provide only enough calories to support your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and nothing for activity, it will be difficult for your body to function. You can't sustain a workout without adequate fuel because your body needs calories to shuttle sufficient energy to working muscles.

Weight Loss

When we lose fat, especially through rapid weight loss, the body responds by trying to come back into balance (homeostasis). It does this by trying to prevent future weight loss. Reducing body fat gradually, on the other hand, allows time for the body to adjust to the reduction of energy or fat stores.

Stress

The body releases the stress hormone cortisol and reduces testosterone when it faces chronic caloric restriction and additional exercise. These hormonal changes slow metabolism and impair the ability to lose weight. 

How Metabolic Damage Happens

When trying to reduce body fat, you may combine several weight loss methods: reducing calories, or otherwise changing your eating patterns, and ramping up exercise. At first, this dual approach may result in weight loss. But if you make extreme changes in either area (reducing calorie intake or increasing exercise), your body may respond by using muscle for energy and holding onto fat stores to survive.

In a weight-loss plateau, you're stalled. The methods you've been using have stopped working. For many people, the instinct is to try even harder: They may decide to cut more calories or eliminate a whole food group, like carbohydrates. They may add more workout time to their schedule or increase the intensity of their exercise routine. But the metabolism's response is the same: The body hangs onto fat stores in an effort to prevent starvation.

How to Fix Metabolic Damage

It's possible to move your body out of starvation mode once it's there. It requires a "less is more" approach, and you'll need to rethink your approach to exercise and eating.

Exercise

Instead of intense cardio and heavy weight-lifting, scale back your exercise routine for a while. Rest is important for metabolic recovery. Try walking and light weight training so you're still moving your body (this will help you fight stress, too). Give your body a chance to adjust to reduced calories without the added toll of increased physical exercise. Sometimes, varying the type of exercise can also help with this plateau effect (in addition to scaling back your activity).

Diet

Think about fat loss as a process and become patient with your progress. Aim to lose approximately 1 to 2 pounds per week. Gradual weight loss reduces the risk of muscle atrophy and allows your body time to adapt.

Make minor changes to your caloric intake. Keep carbohydrates in your diet. They provide fuel for your body and also activate the hormone leptin. Increased leptin levels improve energy output (aka calorie burn). Reducing and eliminating carbs, on the other hand, lowers leptin levels and decreases its function.

Don't skip healthy dietary fats, either. Adequate fat intake is important for hormone function, especially testosterone. Testosterone helps increase the metabolism and the body's ability to burn fat. Eliminating fat from your diet can actually increase body fat stores. 

Considering keeping a food diary or journal to help keep track of your current eating patterns and any changes you make. Once you've taken some time to rest and reset, you will start feeling better. You will have more energy and an improved mental game. Then you can slowly return to appropriate weight-loss methods

A Word From Verywell

If you're looking to lose weight, be patient. Go gradually. Apply one change at a time and allow your body to adapt. Remember that your body needs all the macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein, and fat—to function at its best. Maintaining a healthy weight helps keep your metabolism running smoothly and efficiently.

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