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  • Writer's pictureDoug Joachim

Embrace the Cold Weather: It Helps You Burn Fat!

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

BAT and exercise

Fact: Cold weather forces your body to burn more fat than hot weather.

Some evolutionary biologists have posited a correlation between our widespread climate-controlled atmospheres and obesity.  Many of us spend the majority of our days indoors and are rarely overwhelmed by outside temperatures. This is especially so in frigid locales. Year-round warmth is a modern luxury. When was the last time you shivered? Being cold is no fun.  Arctic-like weather burns lots of calories and fat from our bodies. It may seem counter-intuitive but it is true; we burn a lot more calories in the cold than in the heat. The majority of our daily metabolic rate is used up by our body attempting to maintain 98.6 degrees (this is called thermoregulation).  Sweating is your body’s natural air conditioner.  Conversely, shivering is our own little internal heater.  Stoking your internal thermostat will force your body to shift its fat storage capabilities into heat generation. Please understand me; I am not recommending your start freezing yourself. There is a term called “non-shivering thermogenesis” you experience in times of mild cold. It is here you will reap benefits and minimize risks (frostbite, hypothermia, ice burn, etc.).  You can make many little frosty tweaks to burn some extra fat, so by summertime, you are ready for the beach.

How come people who reside in warm weather climates seem fitter than their northern counterparts? There are many reasons for this phenomenon (look at Bergmann’s rule). I think it is fair to say: in Miami and LA people wear less clothing all year round. Since there is basically only one season there, people are outdoors all the time and want to look good when exposing more skin. We tend to bundle up and layer in the colder winter cities, hence less self-conscious about our unseen bodies.  Many gain a few extra to keep them warm for the winter and when springs roll around diligently jump back on the diets and hard training routines. It doesn’t have to be this way. Research suggests going outside and being a little cold, maybe the best time to potentate your fat-burning abilities.  Don’t hide your body all winter.  You can still make your mom happy and put on a jacket (so you don’t catch a cold), just not such a heavy one.

There seem to be many benefits to cold thermogenesis (non-shivering):

  1. Lowering body fat

  2. Lowering blood sugar

  3. Cutting food cravings

  4. Improving adrenal function

  5. Improving deep sleep quality

  6. Increasing pain tolerance

  7. Reducing inflammation

We have 2 types of fat cells: white fat adipocytes which store calories and hang out around your waist, hips and butt; and brown adipose tissue (BAT) which are blessed with the superpower of burning up the white fat cells. Ironically, the fatter a person is the less brown fat they have, or the thinner they are the more they have.

Brown Adipose Tissue: primary role is to burn large amounts of chemical energy to produce heat in the body; it also plays a role in regulating body weight and insulin when one overeats (people who have large amounts of BAT have an easier time staying slim and diabetes-free). It is primarily found in the upper chest and posterior neck and shoulder region.  

Adult humans don’t have a ton of brown adipocytes (newborns are flush with BAT).  Some research has shown that through regular bouts of exposure to cold temperatures, it is possible to increase these cells' effectiveness and number. Another way to increase BAT population is to get adequate rest (7-9 hrs per night). Fat burning fat cells are also propagated by the release of melatonin – the sleep hormone. It is no coincidence hibernating animals like bears have a ton of BAT. Be like a bear and get your sleep.  Many people have resorted to taking 5 minute cold showers or wearing ice pads to increase their fat-burning potential.  Although this may work, it is way too extreme for most of us (let Tim Ferriss – “The 4 Hour” hero freeze his ass off). Take control of your natural fat-burning potential with these tips:

Cold Weather Fat Burning Tips:

1- Keep your bedroom cool. Studies suggest humans sleep better in a 65 degrees room that is very dark and quiet — which will also raise your human growth hormone output contributing to fat loss and lean muscle building. Turn off all electronics at least an hour before bed (artificial light interrupts melatonin production) and get to bed as early as you can.  This will increase your BAT and help your burn more fat, not to mention eat less, reduce stress and improve your overall health.

2- Get outside during the winter!  Go sledding, snowshoeing, hiking, skiing and running.  Embrace the cold, and it’ll raise your metabolic rate and perhaps produce some more fat-burning cells. It takes a lot of energy for your body to maintain its temperature, especially when it has to heat up.  Most people blame the holidays for the extra pounds they put on when in actuality they walk less (pedometer studies in the Journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed people walk a lot less in the winter months than during the summer) and eat more treats.

3- At the end of your shower, see if you can stand 30 seconds to a minute of cold water.  Not only will this refresh (or maybe shock) you, it may help your body produce a little more BAT and increase your body’s production of heat.

4- Drink ice water throughout the day.  For your body to heat a glass of ice water, you’ll burn 8-10 calories…not much but researchers from “The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism” believe you can burn up 95 calories a day drinking cold water.

5- Turn your home furnace down a few degrees.  This encourages your body to enter thermogenesis (body making more heat) and longer exposure to the cold will lead to the conversion of white fat into brown fat, leading to more calories burned.   Make Al Gore happy by lowering your carbon footprint.

6- Exercise in cold weather.  Both exercise and exposure to cold increase your thermogenesis and brown fat cell activation and conversion.  It is a win, win situation.  Put a T-shirt on and go for a run in the snow. Understanding how brown fat tissue works in humans is far from complete; in the meantime, the evidence we have thus far is compelling.  Research suggests that people who work outdoors and/or live in cold climates have higher brown fat activity than average.  The next time you go out into the cold wear a little bit less and turn your body into a heat-producing calorie burning, fat eating machine!

7- Go for a swim in cool water (not freezing water; you don’t want to get hypothermia!).  Water temps around 60-70 degrees are more than sufficient to increase your metabolic rate.

Non-shivering cold thermogenesis won’t get you ripped but it can serve as one more tool in your weight-loss toolbox. Stay cool.


Doug Joachim – NYC


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