OK, gym rats, show of hands: How many times have you thought about protecting your joints during a workout? Chances are, at least once or twice — maybe a lot more, depending on your injury portfolio. But how many times have you ever thought about the need to protect your metabolism? Are those crickets we’re hearing?
For most of us, metabolism takes up about as much room in our thoughts as our own heartbeats: It’s just there, doing its job behind the scenes, and all we really want is to speed it up in order to lose weight. But just as your muscles and joints can sustain damage while you’re getting in shape, so can your metabolism.
This is not a couch-potato concern, either. The people who are already in decent shape — average or better — run the greatest risk of hurting their metabolisms. And that generally means weight gain — long-term, stubborn weight gain that resists all your efforts to melt it.
“Metabolic damage usually comes with yo-yo dieting and fad dieters,” says Erik Ledin, CSCS, CISSN, NSCA-CPT. As president of Lean Bodies Consulting (leanbodiesconsulting.com), a 6-year-old fitness and training company in Ontario, Canada, Ledin has seen a fair amount of metabolic damage among the figure competitors who come to him for advice.
“What you see with lifelong dieters, who gain weight and lose it, back and forth, is that it affects thyroid function, insulin function, all sorts of things that basically keep a body healthy biochemically and physiologically,” he explains. “Fat loss is just an external manifestation of what’s going on inside the body. If that’s all jacked up, you don’t get results.”
Though many factors can contribute to metabolic damage, a few things are clear: Women are more susceptible to it than men. It’s a little-known but growing phenomenon among physique competitors and other people who drastically restrict their calories for long periods or eliminate entire food groups from their diets. And it’s not always reversible. So how do you know whether you’ve damaged yours?
“A lack of progress,” Ledin says. “You basically are dieting and not doing anything stupid, so you’re in a modest [caloric] deficit. You feel like crap. You have fluctuating energy levels or no energy. You have symptoms of hypothyroidism* and adrenal issues. Something just doesn’t feel right.” Also, if you aren’t sleeping well and have just come off a very low-calorie diet to “resume normal eating but gain an unreasonable amount of weight,” something could be wrong.
You also can have your thyroid tested — but, Ledin warns, it’s hard to get the right test done and the right information from the results. Most doctors only test for thyroid-stimulating hormone and thyroxine (known as T4) — but TSH tests the pituitary gland, not the thyroid, and T4 is an inactive, bound form of the hormone that doesn’t function in the body. “What has to be tested for is free T3 and free T4 because these are the hormones circulating and functioning on the thyroid,” Ledin explains.
If you are able to get the right tests, make sure to get a copy of the results, not just a phone call from the doctor’s office saying your levels fall in the normal range. “You want to see the numbers and the ranges the lab uses to define normal,” Ledin says. “If you’re barely cutting it in the low end, you’re not normal.”
For milder cases, Ledin recommends a well-balanced diet, a moderate amount of cardio, a 20 percent calorie deficit — and a whole lot of patience.
“The only way to get metabolism back online is to go through the crap you have to go through to normalize things,” he says. “Force the body and it reacts. Coax the body and it responds.”
*For detailed information on hypothyroid symptoms, tests and treatments, visit stopthethyroidmadness.com.