Bear the Cold, Burn Some Fat

By on January 31, 2014

Recent freezing temperatures in Birmingham are making those walks to 8AM classes more dreadful than usual. Here’s some motivation to help get you out of your bed and out the door—recent studies show that exposure to cold temperatures could be a major weapon to aid weight loss.

The World Health Organization reports that over 500 million people battle obesity, increasing the prevalence of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. Technology, typically used to solve health crises, actually contributes to the magnitude of overweight individuals. Thanks to the modern conveniences of central heating and air conditioning, humans are able to stabilize their thermal environment for maximum comfort. Unfortunately, this minimizes the body’s energy expenditure.

In extreme cold temperatures, the body protects itself from hypothermia using shivering thermogenesis (ST), increasing metabolic rates by a fivefold above resting rate.  In slightly milder conditions, ST is replaced by nonshivering thermogenesis (NST) through the activation of brown adipose tissue (BAT). This process, thought to only occur in babies, was shown in adults in 2009. The increase in energy expenditure through NST is most effective in young to middle-aged adults when regularly exposed to mild cold. One acclimation study showed a drastic decrease in body fat content over a 6 week period with an exposure to 17°C for 2 hours each day.

The “cold season” is often associated with increased vulnerability to cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease and cancer. Epidemiological studies predict that exposure to more varied ambient temperatures would help the body adapt to climate changes, therefore decreasing disease susceptibility.

Lifestyle control and pharmacological intervention have proved ineffective as large-scale treatments against obesity. Ambient temperature variation requires no excess time and would actually save costs from energy expended in buildings by heaters and air conditioners. Further research is needed to determine the health risks associated with the mild cold exposure and the immune system, especially in the elderly. Scientists are working to pinpoint the exact physiological basis of the nonshivering thermogenesis to best utilize its energy expenditure for health applications.

As part of a healthy lifestyle, turn off the heater and let your body do some of the work by expending energy to regulate temperature. It might just be your coolest workout yet.


Source: van Marken Lichtenbelt et al. Cold exposure — an approach to increasing energy expenditure in humans. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, January 2014

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