It seemed like just another Sunday morning…I woke up at quarter to six, went to the kitchen, drank a glass of water, then brewed a strong, ground coffee. It was cold in the house…the heating had only been on a few minutes. With my hands cupped around the steaming mug, I inhaled the intense bittersweet aroma, and stared out my kitchen window into the pitch-black darkness that is usual in Winter.
There was a “meow” as my, rather large, Cream British Shorthair cat ‘Devon’ brushed his flanks against my leg, then leapt through the cat flap. Suddenly the security light switched on, illuminating the large flakes of snow settling on the grass. I smiled with excitement, like a kid—it hadn’t snowed in long time.
Was I thinking about wrapping up warm, and making a snowman with my kids?…No…well…that would probably happen, but I was more excited to exercise. 😄
Two hours later, when the sun was up, and my breakfast had gone down, I was on the snow covered high bar in my garden doing explosive muscle-ups and clapping pull-ups. I must have looked like a crazy man to most people…but as it was 8am on a Sunday, I think most people were probably still in bed.
Okay, lets get on with the science part of why it may be good to exercise in the cold (and how you can lose weight without exercising at all).
Disclaimer: Please spend much more time than usual warming up before exercising in cold temperatures, as there may be a greater risk of injury. Exercising in cold temperatures can be slippery and dangerous, so you do this at your own risk. Certain medical conditions such as asthma may be adversely affected by exercising in cold temperatures. Please seek the advice of your Medical Physician before attempting training in cold temperatures. Be sensible—do not risk hypothermia. Please see the disclaimer at the bottom for a more general disclaimer. Exercise in cold conditions at your own risk.
Cold Exposure Helps you to Lose Weight
When you are exposed to cold temperatures, your body will attempt to increase your core temperature by both shivering, and Non-Shivering Thermogenesis, through your muscles and Brown Adipose Tissue, often referred to as ‘brown fat’.
Unlike the unsightly white fat that most of us are trying to lose, brown fat burns calories to generate heat. Newborns have a relatively high proportion of brown fat, so they can keep warm, but unfortunately it declines as we get older (perhaps another of many reasons it becomes harder to stay in shape).
In a 2013 study published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, they exposed healthy adults to cool temperatures of 15–16°C (59–61°F) for 6 hours a day, over 10 consecutive days. They found that this mild temperature, “caused a significant increase in energy expenditure, both in females and males.” However, the increased calorie burn was only during cold exposure, and did not continue afterwards.
In a Japanese study, they subjected adults to temperatures of 17°C (62°F) for 2 hours, every day for 6 weeks. Did they lose fat? You bet they did. They lost an average of 5.2% body fat by the end of the study.
In addition, the researchers found that only about half of the subjects had detectable brown fat activity before cold therapy training…but by the end of the study they were all demonstrating active brown fat. This shows that we aren’t all as proficient, or don’t have the same amount of brown fat, but it can be improved with frequent cold exposure.
Of course, when you increase energy expenditure, your body has a nasty habit of making you hungry—so cold therapy will only help you lose weight if you also make sure that you don’t start eating more food.
It May Improve the Immune System
A study was carried out on moderately active males, exposed to cold air at 0°C (32°F). They then either immediately started running on a treadmill in shorts and t-shirt for an hour, or waited until mild shivering had set in, before they started running. The researchers concluded that mild shivering, prior to moderate intensity exercise, stimulated the immune system.
In a different study, researchers subjected moderately fit men to 1 hour of cycling (in cold or hot water), followed by exposure to cold air at 5°C (41°F) for 2 hours. They found that white cell counts (a measure of the immune system) increased significantly after 1 hour, and were still elevated 2 hours later. The most significant increase was exercising in the warm, followed by cold exposure. The researchers concluded:
“…despite popular beliefs that cold exposure can precipitate a viral infection, the innate component of the immune system is not adversely affected by a brief period of cold exposure. Indeed, the opposite seems the case.”
So, it seems that cold exposure may benefit your immune system, when used before and during, or after a workout.
The Downsides of Cold Therapy Training
- It can be slippery, so you’re much more likely to injure yourself
- Your body will cool quickly, and your heart rate will be lower than usual, so you’ll need to do active rest, such as walking around and moving your arms between sets
- You may increase your chances of injury if you try maximum effort in cold temperatures. Most of the studies used only moderate levels of intensity
- If you have asthma, the cold air coupled with exercise is more likely to bring on an asthma attack
- Studies indicate lower Testosterone production when exercising in the cold, so whilst cold weather training might be good to increase the number of calories you burn during a workout, it may not be so good for growing muscle; so use it more for cardio or a moderate bodyweight workout.
- Please be sensible! Only do it for an hour or two, and try to be warm enough to avoid shivering. Beware of the possibility of frostbite or hypothermia if the weather is too cold, and you aren’t wearing enough layers.
Exercising in the cold can be a useful tool in your weight loss toolkit, by increasing the number of calories you burn during a workout, and stimulating your immune system, cold exposure either before and during, or after your workout.
You will get hungrier, due to your increased energy expenditure, so be cautious not to eat more food than usual, otherwise you won’t lose weight.
Be sensible—avoid getting to the point of shivering. Only do an hour or two at the most. Don’t try cold therapy if you are unwell or have a medical condition.
The lazy version – you can lose weight, by burning more calories each day without exercising—just turn down the thermostat to 17°C (62°F) for 2 hours a day, and wear as few clothes as possible…which might be fun for your office colleagues 😄 Perhaps send me a picture.
This year, enjoy the cold weather,
George D. Choy
Personal Trainer & Calisthenics Instructor
Gymnacity in Oxted, Surrey, United Kingdom
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- Why You’re Not Losing Weight
- Is this one thing making you fat?
- Does Cold Weather Help You To Lose Weight?
- How To Overcome Binge Eating And Lose Weight With Hypnosis
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Some of the links or adverts in the post above are affiliate links—so if you click on the links and purchase an item, I may receive affiliate commission. All opinions I expressed in this post are entirely my own. Please refer to my DISCLOSURE page on the ABOUT tab.
 van der Lans; Hoeks J, Brans B, Vijgen GH, Visser MG, Vosselman MJ, Hansen J, Jörgensen JA, Wu J, Mottaghy FM, Schrauwen P, van Marken Lichtenbelt WD. Cold acclimation recruits human brown fat and increases nonshivering thermogenesis. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2013 Aug;123(8):3395-403.
 Yoneshiro T1, Aita S, Matsushita M, Kayahara T, Kameya T, Kawai Y, Iwanaga T, Saito M. Recruited brown adipose tissue as an antiobesity agent in humans. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2013 Aug;123(8):3404-8.
 Dominique D. Gagnon, Sheila S. Gagnon, Hannu Rintamäki, Timo Törmäkangas, Katri Puukka, Karl-Heinz Herzig, Heikki Kyröläinen. The Effects of Cold Exposure on Leukocytes, Hormones and Cytokines during Acute Exercise in Humans. PLoS One. 2014; 9(10): e110774.
 Brenner IK1, Castellani JW, Gabaree C, Young AJ, Zamecnik J, Shephard RJ, Shek PN. Immune changes in humans during cold exposure: effects of prior heating and exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1999 Aug;87(2):699-710.