Metabolic health is getting all the attention right now, but why is it important and how can you improve it? The experts explain…
Do you still think that BMI (body mass index) is the best biomarker for measuring your health? Think again. To really stay on top of your physical and mental fitness you need to start focusing on your metabolic health.
With the hashtag #MetabolicHealth racking up 66 million views on TikTok, there is a lot of noise around this latest buzz phrase, but what advice is actually worth listening to?
Broadly speaking, metabolic health refers to how efficiently your body produces and uses energy. Poor metabolic health can not only lead to fatigue and lack of endurance, but most notably obesity and diabetes (blood sugar levels are a key marker) and even surprising outcomes including depression, brain fog, infertility, severe acne and chronic pain.
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In the UK, metabolic syndrome (the medical term for a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity) affects one in three adults over 50 and raises the risk of heart disease, stroke and other chronic diseases. Getting a handle on it now will not only improve your health in the short-term but also keep more serious conditions at bay in the future.
“Metabolic health is unique to a particular individual and is dependent on your genes, diet, lifestyle, metabolism and weight,” says NHS GP Dr Anita Raja. “People with good metabolic health will be at lower risk of metabolic syndrome and benefit from better sleep, a stable mood, improved concentration and increased energy levels.”
She believes it is a better indicator of health than your BMI score, explaining: “BMI can be deceiving. A very muscular athlete could be incredibly fit with excellent metabolic health yet have a BMI greater than 25, which is classed as overweight and certainly not true of that individual.”
But how can we measure the state of our own metabolic health? Dr Raja explains that there are five factors involved in determining your metabolic health (with the healthy ranges to aim for):
- Blood sugar level (less than 140 mg/dL is normal two hours after eating)
- Blood pressure (less than 120/80 mmHg)
- Waist circumference (for women, below 80cm/31.5in is low risk)
- Cholesterol level (5 or below)
- Triglyceride* level (1.7 or below)
*a type of fat present in the bloodstream
Achieving and maintaining good metabolic health requires a holistic approach. Paul Johnson, national clinical fitness lead at Nuffield Health, adds: “While we’re not able to modify all impacts to our metabolic health, we can focus on the external factors such as what we eat and the amount of physical activity we do.
“Exercise is a large factor in improving metabolic health; however, in order to see the best results it’s important that you’re consistent and ensure you approach your health holistically – looking at your nutrition, sleep, exercise and mental health as a whole rather than individually.”
5 ways to keep your metabolic health in peak condition
Exercise regularly with aerobic and resistance workouts
“Any type of aerobic exercise can support metabolic health – we want to get the heart rate up and the blood pumping around the body,” says Johnson, who recommends anything from moderate intensity (brisk walking, swimming or cycling) to high intensity (HIIT, running or spinning), depending on your fitness level.
“Resistance training a couple times a week is also great at improving metabolic health markers. Incorporate it into your weekly workouts, which could feature a couple of compound movements – exercises that target multiple joints and muscles – for building strength within the main muscle groups. Make sure you’re adding in variations of squats, hip hinges, push and pull exercises, and rotational exercises into your routine,” he adds.
Manage your stress levels
Research has shown that an overactive nervous system and increased levels of cortisol can have a negative effect on our metabolic fitness.
In fact, a study published in the Journal Of Alternative And Complementary Medicine found that relaxed breathing (breathing deeply and extending the exhale) had a positive short-term impact on glucose processing. Participants in the study repeated this breathwork every 10 minutes for half an hour before drinking a 75g glucose load, and for 90 minutes afterwards. Researchers found that the breathwork appeared to blunt the glucose peak.
Tried and tested relaxation techniques from breathwork to yoga can indirectly give your metabolic health a positive boost. Make time for these breathwork and meditation exercises to keep your metabolic health in check. Or try other routes to calm such as a super-chilled pranayama yoga class or these quick and easy ways to stimulate your vagus nerve to reduce stress and aid sleep.
Prioritise a healthy diet
With glucose and triglyceride levels key indicators of metabolic health, it’s no surprise that a healthy diet is a top priority.
“Focus on eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, avoiding fatty, processed food and takeaways. And drink alcohol within sensible limits,” says Dr Raja. “My foremost tip is switching to brown bread, rice and pasta instead of the white varieties.”
But, with metabolic health unique to each individual, you may need to delve a little deeper into how efficiently your body processes different types of food, so…
Monitor with a real-time gadget
To get a personalised insight into how your own body uses and produces energy from what you consume, you could try a clever gadget like Lumen.
Simply breathe into the handheld breathalyser and the accompanying app will give you real-time insights into how your body is burning either the fats or carbohydrates available. From analysing that data, the Lumen app will recommend tailored nutrition plans to help optimise your metabolic health.
Get a 360-degree picture of your metabolic health
The personalisation of health continues with a new health tracker programme launching in the UK this year that aims to give you a ton of metabolic knowledge so you can pinpoint exactly where you need to improve.
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Levels’ Metabolic Health Programme offers real-time insights from multiple data points, including biosensors (glucose monitoring patches), fitness, sleep and lifestyle data (you can sync it to your Apple Watch, for instance) so you get a comprehensive picture of your metabolic health. Annual membership costs £205 plus £129 for a 28-day supply of glucose monitors and ongoing analysis and app access – available from levelshealth.com.
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