If cooler weather is your cue to hunker down in the gym, it may be time to rethink that strategy. The reason: Some studies show that you may actually burn more calories when you break a sweat in the cold. There’s even a new boutique fitness spot capitalizing on this idea. At Brrrn studio in New York, the climate is kept between 45°F and 60°F. But does the science on this stuff actually pan out? We got experts to weigh in, plus offer pointers on getting it done.
How It Works
To really understand this concept, you need to know a bit about fat. Humans have two different types of fat cells. White fat cells store energy from the food we eat and are also the kind that are associated with weight gain. Then there are brown fat cells, which are considered good because they burn calories to heat our body. According to recent research, when we are exposed to colder temps, our bodies tend to produce more of these brown fat cells. It makes sense, right? They keep us warm, so we need more of them when temps drop.
Another reason this chilly workout trend is said to be effective: The cold causes us to shiver as a way of warming up—a process known as thermogenesis, which increases body temperature by burning more energy (a.k.a. calories). Beyond that, you may work harder when you’re not distracted by sweltering temperatures. “It feels easier to exercise in a cooler climate,” says Pamela Geisel, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. And the better you feel, the longer or harder you’re willing to push yourself.
So should you always be working out in the cold? Not necessarily. “If you are exercising at a sustained hard intensity [like a difficult run or a boot-camp workout], it doesn’t make a big difference whether you are in a cool environment or a more temperate one,” says John Castellani, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts. The reason for this is fairly simple: You’re working enough to thoroughly heat your body, so it no longer has to burn extra brown fat cells to stay warm.
If you’re heading outside for a frosty workout, there are a few things to keep in mind. To maximize the benefits, you want to be working out in a temperature somewhere between the high 40s and high 50s (experts say 50–53°F is ideal). When the weather drops below this, you’ll have to consider a host of other issues—like investing in cold-weather workout gear or navigating icy or snowy surfaces, which can mean poor footing and a greater risk of falling. Even at moderately cold temperatures, it takes your body some time to warm up. This can lead to an increased possibility of injury if you go too hard, too soon, warns Geisel.
The solution: Do some dynamic stretching before heading out. Then, once you’re outside, start slowly and give your body ample time to adjust.
Finally, you need to be cognizant of how long you’re outside after your workout—especially if your clothes are soaked in sweat. Even at a relatively mild 41°F, heat loss in wet clothes can be double that of dry conditions. This puts you at an increased risk of hypothermia, which can develop when heat loss exceeds heat production, causing a drop in core temperature. Early symptoms include feeling chilled, severe shivering, and feeling confused. If you start noticing any of these signs, head inside immediately.
Now that you’re armed with a few stay-safe strategies, get out there and freeze your booty off!
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