When it comes to measuring how old you are, there's chronological age, which is the number of years you've been alive, and then there's metabolic age. What is metabolic age? It refers to how well your body functions and metabolizes energy compared to someone your same chronological age, says Alexandra Sowa, MD, a dual-board-certified physician specializing in internal and obesity medicine and founder of SoWell Health. In other words, your metabolic age can serve as an indicator of your physical health.
For instance, if you have a metabolic age that's far older than other people your chronological age, Dr. Sowa says that can put you at a higher risk for chronic diseases associated with metabolic dysfunction such as pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even other issues including sleep dysfunction or joint and back pain.
Thankfully, there are lifestyle changes you can make to improve your metabolic age and metabolic health.
But first: What is metabolic age, and how is it calculated?
Unlike chronological age, metabolic age is not as easy to measure. It's determined by using your basal metabolic rate (or BMR), which is the number of calories your body burns at rest, with an equation called Mifflin St. Jeor, Dr. Sowa says. Once you understand your BMR, you can compare it to a metabolic age chart to see how you compare to others of your same chronological age.
Here's where it gets tricky: Your BMR in and of itself is also difficult to calculate. To do so, Dr. Sowa says it's best to work with a professional who has access to a bioimpedance scale. Still, these scales are often inaccurate. "The only way to truly get a good sense of your basal metabolic rate is through specific tools that are really only used in laboratories," she says.
For this reason, Dr. Sowa emphasizes that the concept of metabolic age isn't very helpful for most people. Not only is metabolic age difficult to calculate, but it also requires comparing your data against other people who have similar data and age, which is nearly impossible. "There are so many factors at play when it comes to how your body processes or metabolizes energy, things like body shape, body frame, ethnicity, genetics, your specific diseases—really all play a factor, making it very hard to make any sense out of comparison," she explains.
How to improve your metabolic health
According to Dr. Sowa, understanding and improving your metabolic health is a better alternative to the concept of metabolic age, as it provides more concrete benchmarks you can work to improve. "Metabolic health is a series of criteria defined as having ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference, without using medications," she says. "We want to achieve optimal metabolic health because it equals reduced rates of chronic illnesses, like heart disease type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cancer."
Furthermore, she adds, "only 12 percent of adult Americans meet all five metabolic health metrics. So most people out there will actually have some element of metabolic dysfunction." To improve metabolic health, she recommends focusing on reducing emotional and life stressors and decreasing the inflammation and stress we put on our body via the food we eat. You can do this by consuming a whole food-focused diet.
"Our traditional Western diet is full of processed food and refined sugars," Dr. Sowa says. "These sorts of foods really add to an overall level of inflammation through elevated and unregulated glucose levels. This leads to the majority of Americans having something called insulin resistance, [which] drives poor metabolic health outcomes and also impacts your metabolic age because it has an overall affect on our metabolic functioning, our metabolism, and our basal metabolic rates."
Another way to improve metabolic health is by exercising regularly, according to Dr. Sowa, who suggests focusing on strength training, in particular, because it increases muscle mass. "With increased muscle mass, our metabolic rate, which goes into factoring our metabolic age, will increase because muscles do take more energy to operate," she says.
So, improving our metabolic health, and in turn, our metabolic age, really comes down to doing all the things we know help keep us healthy—reducing stress, eating well, and exercising regularly.
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