Friday, January 24, 2014

One Positive of the Cold Weather: It Might Help You Lose Weight!

The past week I have not been walking to work due to the frigid temperatures and frostbite warnings. However, I normally do walk most days of the throughout the winter (on days it is >20˚F). People think I am crazy, but I say it is no different than when I was in college at Penn State- walking over a mile to class on a day it was below freezing was no big deal, it was actually the norm for PSU students. I remember some days by the time to get to class I would want to cry because I was so cold that my face hurt and eyelashes were frozen. Or, we would be tailgating then sitting on the metal bleachers for four hours at night with temperatures in the teens and twenties. Ahhh the glory days! But hey, it was fun and it made me tougher!

Walking in the cold certainly makes me appreciate heat and being comfortable. Just as with exercise, being uncomfortable isn't necessarily a bad thing, it can make you stronger (mentally and physically!). I actually have found that now that I am not living up in Happy Valley and don't have long periods of exposure to the cold anymore, I am more of a wuss when it comes to cold temperatures. I really think I could tolerate the cold better when I was in college than I do now... so perhaps I had more brown fat back then? 

Researchers have long known that shivering is a protective function of the body and works to increase the body’s temperature by burning more calories. Some estimate that the metabolic rate can increase almost 5x when shivering, leading the body to potentially expend over 400 calories an hour. New research suggests that exposure to just slightly less than comfortable temperatures really can boost your calorie burn through Non-Shivering Thermogenesis (NST). NST is when the body increases its temperature (without shivering) in cool, but not frigid conditions. Research has shown that people gradually adapt and build up more brown fat when exposed to cold regularly. Brown fat is metabolically active fat and burns calories to produce heat, rather than storing calories like the standard white fat. Some estimate that brown fat can account for 30% of the calories one burns in a day.

In one Japanese study, subjects sat in a cooler room (62.6˚F) for 2 hours a day for six weeks. After the six weeks, the test subjects had decreased their body fat by 5% compared to those exposed to traditional room temperature settings. Furthermore, test subjects burned more calories when exposed to cold than the control subjects. In a new study, researchers had subjects sit in a room at 59˚F for six hours each day over 10 days. At the end of the 10 days, subjects had an increase in their brown fat and noticed they could tolerate cold better than they previously could.

My Recommendations: Experts still are not sure how long you need to be in a cold setting to burn x amount of calories, but the studies are showing that slightly cooler than comfortable temperatures can make a difference in your levels of brown fat and calorie burn. So, next time you are tempted to stay inside on a cold day, get outside for a bit and go for a walk (unless there is a frostbite warning!). Maybe learn to appreciate your freezing cold office and realize it may actually be benefitting you. My motto is that you never experience the joys in life (i.e: heat) without first experiencing the pains (i.e: cold). However, if you are an elderly person or have significant health problems like a heart condition, exposing yourself to cold may be something you want to talk to your doctor about.


1. J Clin Invest. 2013;123(8):3404–3408. doi:10.1172/JCI67803.
2. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, van Marken Lichtenbelt et al.: "Cold exposure – an approach to increasing energy expenditure in humans."
3. Picture-

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