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Staying in a cold room, swimming in cold water, and dressing minimally in cold weather all burn calories and eventually burn fat. In this article we investigate if this is true?

Body Temperature May Determine Body Size

For years Robert was active, energetic, and skinny as a rail. On the rare occasions he would go to the doctor, his temperature was reliably 98.6° F (37° C).

As Robert got older, however, he started having issues with his pituitary and thyroid glands. The pituitary gland sends out the thyroid stimulating hormone that tells the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormone, which controls the rate at which the body burns sugar for maintaining body temperature.

Robert gained weight. And as he gained weight, Robert became a literally cool guy. After gaining 45 pounds (20 kilos), Robert regularly ran a temperature of 97.0° F (36.1° C), or even lower. His skin became cool to the touch, and he stopped sweating. The lower his body temperature went, the higher was his weight.

Now Dr. Robert Refinetti, a professor of psychology and a dean at the University of South Carolina at Salkehatchie, along with colleagues at the University of Messina in Italy, report findings from studies of dogs that show that low body temperature may lead to low energy expenditure that explains weight gain.

Refinetti and his associates took anal temperature readings of 287 lean and obese dogs over several years. They found that for dogs of the same body size, lean dogs consistently had higher body temperatures than obese dogs. Both dogs and humans, of course, accumulate fat when they consume more food than their bodies need for energy production. Some food is used to create energy for exercise, but far more food, three times as much in younger people, four times as much in older people, is used for the basal metabolism of the body, including the maintenance of body temperature.

All warm-blooded animals use energy to stay warm. Some animals, however, have a naturally lower body temperature that requires less energy production. So how can this information be used to fight fat?

Lowering ambient temperature requires the body to burn more energy to maintain internal temperature. Staying in a cold room, swimming in cold water, and dressing minimally in cold weather all burn calories and eventually burn fat.

Researchers at Christian-Albrechts University in Germany have conducted experiments that found that about half of weight gain or weight loss is related to the relative efficiency (in "cool" people) or inefficiency (in "hot" people) of the body's internal heat-regulating mechanisms. Researchers at the University of Florida at Gainesville have learned that swimming in "cold" (20° C/68° F) water requires about 60% more energy than swimming at the same rate of speed for the same length of time in "warm"  (33° C/91° F) water.

Even very light exercise may burn lots of calories if it is done in the cold. It is important to avoid hypothermia. A little shivering burns a lot of calories, but uncontrollable shivering can create serious and immediate health problems. Always have a way to warm up handy before you do any kind of exercise in the cold, especially exercise in cold water.

  • G Piccione, E Giudice, F Fazio, R Refinetti. Association between obesity and reduced body temperature in dogs. International Journal of Obesity, 2010, 35 (8): 1011 DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2010.253.
  • Photo courtesy of Rosalyn Louise on Flickr: