When we last spoke, I debunked the omnipresent internet memes that claim you can supercharge your metabolism through secret hacks known only to the meme’s authors and their cohort of Amazon Associates (because inevitably, the author’s real goal is to get you to buy schlock on Amazon). Increasing one’s metabolism, the authors claim, can be a shortcut to managing weight without constraining your eating. People have other physical reasons that drive their desire to “rev” their metabolism but weight control is usually the biggie.
People who read that last blog post know that while little tweaks can increase your metabolism, the effects are negligible. That’s because 70% of your metabolism is cast in stone. That 70% won’t increase in full grown adults without significant long term investments in exercise.
But, even though you can’t really improve your physical health via metabolism shortcuts, you can enhance your mental health with one secret hack that leverages your metabolism’s intractability in your favor. And that secret hack is…
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock or some other place that the failing New York Times doesn’t reach (check out this search of the NYT site if you don’t get that joke), mindfulness is that new crazy fad that’s so hip with the kids these days. The thing that makes this fad have a little more staying power than fidget spinners is that there is actual science that backs up the benefits of pursuing a regular mindfulness practice.
Later in this post, I explain how adopting your own mindfulness practice allows you to overcome the central governor that holds your brain back but first, let’s discuss those limitations
Why Those Hacks To Rev Your Metabolism Are Mindf*cks
Here’s the issue I have with most “metabolism revving” secrets, they don’t really rev your metabolism. What they do instead is provide short bursts of increased calorie burn by either raising your physical activity levels (e.g., do a minute of calisthenics before each bathroom break) or expanding the thermal effect of food (e.g., eat spicy foods). While these are great practices to follow, they really don’t have much long term effect on your day-to-day calorie spend. We’re talking maybe 50 to 100 calories maximum each time you do them. And sometimes your body, evil genius that it is, compensates for that increase by slowing down other parts of your metabolism so the end result is nada.
I discuss this in detail in the post, Metabolism – Is It Revvable? In that post, we learn that there are three major ways your body uses energy. They are:
- Your Metabolic Rate – The energy needed to support the multiple chemical, electrical and mechanical events that keep you alive.
- Physical Activity – Any movement your body makes throughout the course of the day including exercise.
- Thermic Effect of Food – The energy needed to digest meals.
Of those, only changes in your metabolic rate provide a long term path towards increasing your ongoing calorie expenditure. The problem is that your metabolic rate is a difficult thing to raise over the long term. The older you get, the harder it is (Exception: Rare cases, such as Benjamin Button <?my Amazon Associates link so I can make .0002 cents if you order using this link. Thank you for helping to keep the lights on>).
The most effective methods for enhancing your metabolic rate are to:
- Pack on more muscle
- Load on more fat
- Get sick or injured
If the end game for raising your metabolic rate is better health, then you may take issue with all but the first technique in that list. So, unless you’re willing and able to adopt the discipline to build muscle through consistent resistance exercise (e.g., weight lifting) coupled with a fine-tuned nutrition plan (Hey! I can help you with this! Contact me here), be happy with your metabolism chugging along at its current rate and use all this physiology kung fu I’m dropping on you to your advantage.
Actually, it’s not kung fu. It’s aikido.
Mental Aikido and The Metabolic Mindf*ck
Of the many forms of martial arts, aikido has a unique focus. Aikido is all about using your opponents‘ strengths against themselves rather than confronting them with your own force.
As you learned above and in the previous post, your body does everything it can to keep your metabolism where it is. Another thing you learned in that post is that of all your body parts that depend on your metabolism, your brain is one of the biggest consumers of energy. The weird thing is that unlike other organs, your brain consumes energy at a constant rate no matter what you’re doing
Regardless of whether you’re relaxing while solving math problems, web-surfing in search of cat videos, hard at work releasing new and creative cover sheets for TPS reports, or asleep dreaming about cats solving math problems (I know I’m not the only one with that recurring dream), your brain consumes the same number of calories. It’s fixed. You can’t change it. The following chart depicts your perception of how hard your brain is working at any give time versus what’s really happening.
All this may sound discouraging. I promised a way to achieve better mental health using a metabolism hack and now I’m saying there’s really very little you can do. And while it’s true, you can’t force your brain to use more (or less) energy, you can use its own strength to divert energy towards more positive mental activity.
That’s Where Mindfulness Comes In
Mindfulness, or more specifically a mindfulness practice, is the act of ignoring all the flotsam and jetsom going on in your brain and focusing on the current moment. To you, it is a strenuous exercise in extreme focus. To anyone observing you, it looks like you’re doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not reading. Not Tweeting. Not breeding. Not eating (unless you’re doing mindful eating which is something else you can contact me about).
For the purposes of this post, that’s all I say about what mindfulness actually is. I’ll propose a Karma Sense Mindfulness practice in an upcoming post. If you’re too impatient to wait, you can learn more through the Google machine, that New York Times search link I gave you earlier or by asking your friendly neighborhood wellness geek (but be wary of the wellness geek who tries to sell you schlock on Amazon to achieve a mindful state).
In this post, we focus on how a mindfulness practice uses the brain’s stubbornness in your favor.
This is your brain:
This is your brain on mindfulness:
There are three structures within the brain that are relevant to this discussion.
- The hypothalamus (not shown) regulates your metabolism. It ultimately drives your thryroid gland into orchestrating all of the metabolic actions your body takes to function.
- The Amygdala (which contrary to what you may think is not named after the Star Wars princess whose death led to Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the Dark Side, although it is pronounced similarly) is your fight-or-flight sensor. When you’re tense or fearful, your amygdala sends an all points alert throughout your body in an attempt to protect you.
- The Prefrontal Cortex is where all that cool stuff that makes humans unique happens. The cortex is what focuses your awareness, helps you concentrate and drives your decisions.
This amazing piece of computational architecture worked great when our biggest fears were attacks by bears and not by bosses. These days, that fight-or-flight feeling might kick in every time we hear our phone’s alert sound, even if it’s on someone else’s phone. The constant state of chronic stress trains the amygdala to become the master of its domain. It grows in size like in the first picture above (the “this is your brain” picture). It also builds more connections to the prefrontal cortex. The result is a very loud amygdala having more influence on the prefrontal cortex and its effort to help you focus and decide. This would be similar to Sméagol being Frodo Baggin’s chief advisor instead of good old Sam.
Mindfulness – It’s Science, Yo!
Proponents of mindfulness make some incredible (as in barely credible) claims as to the benefits of adopting a practice. These include but are not limited to:
|Lower Anxiety||Better Impulse Control||Fights Depression|
|Improves Self Esteem||Reduces Pain||Raises Awareness|
|Increases Optimism||Helps to Overcome Undesirable Habits (e.g., smoking, disordered eating)||Improves Mood|
|Increases Empathy||Hightens Mental Focus||Improves Memory|
|Enhances Creativity||Promotes Problem Solving Skills||Controls ADD/ADHD|
|Increases Immunity||Provides Energy||Improves Respiration|
|Improves Circulation||Reduces Blood Pressure||Delays Aging|
|Reverses/Controls Heart Problems||Reduces/Controls Cognitive Decline||Fights Inflammation|
|Controls Asthma||Lessens Premenstrual and Menopausal Symptoms||Prevents Arthritis and Fibromyalgia|
|Improves Digestion||Slows Progression and Reduces Symptoms of Cancer||Slows Progression of HIV|
Amazingly each of these has some scientific basis. But when you read the studies that support these claims, you find that the evidence isn’t exactly a slam dunk. Many of these qualities are subjective. Others are easy to measure but the study design is questionable. This is why I personally always had a problem sticking to a mindfulness practice of my own. The benefits are often intangible and the distance between cause and effect can seem endless.
However, as technology opens new avenues into learning how the brain works, we can actually see how developing a consistent mindfulness practice changes the architecture of the brain. In one study, scientists subjected study participants to an eight-week course of a mindfulness practice. At the end of that week, the study cohort saw an across the board reduction in the size of their amygdala and an associated increase in the size of the prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, the Amygdala lost access to its HOV lane to the prefrontal cortex. Other parts of the brain got their piece of the action too.
In effect, the brain said:
“Hey! Since I’m not spending the ENTIRE day worrying about what dumba$$ thing my pointy haired boss is going to do next, why don’t I reconfigure myself so I can spend more time doing useful and logical stuff?”
Confronted by its own inability to suck up more calories from the sugar circulating in your veins, the brain reroutes that energy to a better place. Is that cool or what? Mental aikido in action.
And so, my friends, skeptic and data-driven wellness nerd that I am, I am all in on the benefits of adopting a mindfulness practice. I’m also cognizant of the fact that most of you don’t have time to “do nothing” and when you try, you end up obsessing about that dolt in accounting instead (unless you’re in accounting in which case the sales department is your obsession).
In my next post, we’ll look at why you’re probably wrong about your inability to adopt a mindfulness practice and suggest a few Karma Sense ways to get started.
Enjoying Your Foray into the World of Karma Sense?
Consider ordering your copy of The Karma Sense Eating Plan. It’s available through this link or wherever mediocre books full of useful information and poop jokes are sold. And I’m not plugging The Karma Sense Eating Plan in a selfish pursuit of earning my .0002 cents. I donate ALL profits from The Karma Sense Eating Plan to Alice’s Kids. Alice’s Kids makes targeted donations to help kids in need fully participate in the opportunities of childhood.