Is 'cold thermogenesis' something we should all be doing to lose weight? Maybe not
Tuesday, January 13, 2015, 5:03 PM - Last week, a report appeared on CBC News that featured a Regina man named Dave Limacher shoveling snow without a shirt on, in support of a fat-burning method known as 'cold thermogenesis'. Limacher looked to be in very good shape, so, is this something we should all be doing?
In short, the answer - perhaps unsurprisingly - is 'no'.
However, this isn't a case of Limacher being 'crazy' - an accusation he apparently hears from his neighbours - nor is it simply weight-loss gurus trying to make a quick buck on a new fad.
There is some solid science behind the ideas of cold thermogenesis, but at the same time, the vast majority of us should simply not be going out to exercise in -24oC weather without some significant protection from the cold.
The idea is fairly simple. When exposed to cold temperatures, especially when the body's core temperature is dropping, it deals with the situation in one of two ways. It either shivers - quickly converting carbohydrates into energy for skeletal muscles to make small shaking motions in order to heat the body up - or it foregoes the shivering, opting to break down what's known as brown fat (aka brown adipose tissue or BAT) instead, which is a 'powerhouse' store of heat energy.
Apparently, the heat energy released by breaking down brown fat burns far more calories than shivering does, which translates into a high metabolic rate, which burns more white fat.
All of this is pretty basic physiology that can be easily read up on (try here and here). However, according to a WIRED article from 2013, the slim body of scientific studies performed on cold thermogenesis give a wide range of possible metabolic increases (between 8 and 80 per cent). So, any claims made about the effectiveness of cold thermogenesis should probably be accompanied by one of those disclaimers that says 'these results are not typical'.
The issue, according to the author, is that exactly how much of an increase someone experiences depends on "a slew of variables including the degree and duration of the exposure, whether you're shivering, your diet, and physiological factors like age, gender, and fat mass."
As it stands, walking outside to exercise in frigid temperatures (especially if there's a significant wind chill), or adopting any of the other methods proponents of cold thermogenesis suggest - ice baths, cold showers and ice packs strapped to your torso and limbs (just to name a few) - can be dangerous. At the very least, it could cause a risky drop in body temperature that can make you to feel horrible for hours afterwards, or possibly even induce a cardiac episode that has you making a surprise visit to your local emergency room.
So, when it comes down to it, while there is some science behind this, and researchers are still investigating the benefits of inducing the breakdown of brown fat, there really hasn't been enough studies done to make any blanket statements about the effectiveness of cold thermogenesis. Whether or not it's something that might be good for you very likely depends on your exact fitness level and general heart health, and as for who would be the best person is to advise you about all of this ... that would be your doctor.