New research into weight loss is showing that lowering the number on the thermostat may help drive down the number on the scale.
Instead of only focusing on diet and exercise, some doctors have suggested exposure to cold temperatures as a way to activate fat-burning cells as they work to warm up the body.
Of course, dieters will have to decide what’s more unpleasant: feeling chilly or losing weight through conventional ways.
A 2013 Japanese study exposed participants to 63-degree temperatures for two hours a day over six weeks and found that their body fat decreased and they burned more calories than a control group. In a similar study, Dutch researchers wrote that there might be health benefits from variant temperatures rather than the climate-controlled indoor environments most Westerners have become accustomed to.
“It’s a provocative idea in the sense that, can we actually make a dent in this obesity epidemic by doing something very simple?” said Dr. Ajay Chawla, a professor at UC San Francisco, who has published research on temperature and fat burning. “I think there’s some level of data in human subjects to suggest that when they are exposed to mild cold environments over a period of time, they do burn more energy and lose weight.”
Wayne Hayes, a computer science professor at UC Irvine, became intrigued with the possibility after reading “The Four Hour Body” by Tim Ferriss.
“Tim recommends ice baths and cold showers and wearing a bag of frozen peas on the back of your neck,” Hayes said. “All of those are either horrifically uncomfortable or just inconvenient. I figured instead of use a bag of ice, why not just put it in a piece of clothing?”
Hayes developed the Cold Shoulder, a vest lined with packs of ice to cover the back and shoulders – those regions have the fewest nerve endings, so discomfort would be minimized. He said people have a thermal neutral zone where they feel comfortable, somewhere between 68 and 80 degrees, depending on the person.
“As you get below the thermal neutral zone, there’s a sharp increase in the number of calories you need to burn to stay warm,” he said.
The vest is to be worn when a user is already at a comfortable temperature and at rest – for instance, sitting in the office or driving to work.
“On a hot day, it will help keep you cool but it won’t help you burn calories. In order to burn calories, you need to feel the chill,” Hayes said.
He started a crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign and sold nearly 2,000 vests. The product sells for $199.99, which he said in the long run is more affordable than setting the air conditioner lower.
Lisa Plant, 55, bought a Cold Shoulder vest this year and says she has lost 20 pounds without making any other lifestyle changes. She learned about the product through Facebook.
“I consider myself a professional dieter and I was always looking for things that are new when it comes to weight loss,” said Plant, who grew up in New Jersey but now lives in Australia. “Exercise is not my thing. I knew I needed to do something to burn more calories.”
In the morning, Plant takes the vest out of the freezer and wears it in bed while she reads. She puts it back in the freezer after about 45 minutes and gets ready for work. At the end of the day, she wears the vest again while making dinner. She describes the cold as pleasant.
“It doesn’t hurt and it’s not uncomfortable,” she said. “I like wearing it. It’s just really easy.”
Chawla of UCSF turned the thermostat down in his office to 65 degrees. He was uncomfortable at first, but over time he became acclimated, and now other offices and public places feel too warm to him.
“If you’re living all the time at 72 degrees and all of a sudden you go down to 65 and don’t put any sweaters on, you’re not going to like it,” Chawla said, adding that he’s not sure if he’s lost any weight.
His own research in mice has found that molecules secreted by cells of the immune system trigger the conversion of fat-storing cells to fat-burning cells, raising the possibility that one day a medication could achieve the same result without cold temperatures.
He referred to a study in which participants who wore bathing suits in a 66-degree room lost an average of 15 pounds in a year without any lifestyle changes.
“Pharmacology has not quite gotten there yet,” he said.
Chawla said Hayes’ premise is sound, although he can’t verify the results of the vest.
“From a simple conceptual point of view, it seems like a reasonable thing,” he said. “It has to be tested.”
Hayes said he hopes to collaborate with UCI’s medical school for a clinical trial. He emphasizes that diet and exercise are essential, but he does believe intermittent cold exposure should become an accepted complement.
“Someone who eats an entire bag of cookies and wears the vest is not going to lose weight,” Hayes said. “It’s not a miracle worker. It can accelerate your weight loss but you have to have all three pillars.
“There’s science behind this. It really does work. It’s not a gimmick. My hope is that 10 years from now the medical establishment will realize that cold exposure is good for you. It’s novel and it works.”
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