Ah, winter. The days are shorter, the nights are longer, and for many of us, it is cold. This changing of the season usually brings slower-paced lifestyles, holiday celebrations, and a huge hankering for rich comfort foods. And as such, a lot of us end up battling that dreaded “winter weight” once the weather starts to cool down and ice over.
However, it turns out that, rather than bundling up and hibernating until the sun comes out, it might actually benefit us to use the sub-optimal temperatures to our advantage. Capitalizing on the cold weather might actually be a good idea for those looking to lose a couple of pounds since there are other factors and changes going on inside your body when the weather takes a dip.
There’s a lot at play when it comes to how the cold can affect the way your body functions, so let’s explore just how our bodies change in the wintertime … and find out just what that means for those of us looking to lose some weight.
How your body function changes during the winter
It turns out that there are some pretty interesting physiological changes that happen when the weather begins to take a dip.
Let’s start with the basics of fat and calories: as you might already know, your body stores fat in response to a calorie (energy) surplus, and this fat plays some important roles in your body including cushioning your organs and providing insulation. Your fat stores are also important for producing energy since your body can break these tissues down to power your body functions.
One dependable way to lose unwanted body fat is to burn more calories – or in other words, expend more energy.
Going further, you have two different kinds of fat tissue in your body, known as white fat and brown fat. The white fat cells are the ones that store this excess energy. On the other hand, brown fat is responsible for burning energy, which is important for providing heat. [*]
So here’s the interesting part: it turns out that your fat stores “change” in response to colder weather. Brown fat stores increase in response to the cold weather – and this is why you eventually get used to colder weather over time. One study found that men who were continuously exposed to fluctuating cold temperatures over the course of four months showed a whopping 42% increase in brown fat volume! [*]
Your white fat “converts” to brown fat, activated by the cold weather, to make this change happen.
Do you burn more calories in the winter?
This change to the type of fat in your body means that, yes: your metabolism changes. And that means that you can definitely burn more calories in the cold!
In the same study above, participants showed some other changes: their metabolic fat activity increased by 10%, and their insulin activity improved, which are both great news for managing your body weight and composition.
This occurs because brown fat is better at thermogenesis, or creating heat, than white fat. And – you guessed it – your body burns more calories in order to create that heat and keep you warm.
In fact, brown fat is so effective at thermogenesis that therapies targeting brown fat have even been considered as a way to combat obesity! [*]
In addition to the changes in fat composition, there’s another way your body burns more calories in the cold as well. Before your body even gets a chance to adjust and increase its brown fat composition, you’re going to start to shiver when you’re first exposed to the cold as your body attempts to get warm. “Shivers” use energy, so you’ll increase the number of calories you’re burning this way. And eventually, that shivering triggers the production of brown fat. [*]
So whether you’re shivering or your body has adjusted its fat composition to deal with the cold, you’re definitely burning more in the winter than any other season!
Is cold exposure a good way to lose weight?
Unfortunately, even though your body is better at burning calories during the cold season, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a one-off weight-loss method.
Studies suggest that the number of calories you burn might not be as large as you’d like if you’re looking for weight loss. One study found that the participants who were exposed to the cold for a full day only burned an additional 150-200 calories. [*] So, even if you’re staying outside and in the cold for the entire day, the increase in calorie burn is kind of small, especially when you consider that it takes approximately 3,000 calories burned to lose one pound.
Exercising in the cold won’t necessarily burn more calories than it would in a more moderate climate, either. Your movement during physical activity eventually brings up your body heat, which can negate the extra calorie-burning effects that the cold weather can bring. You can burn calories from exercise, or from staying still in a cold environment, but probably not from both at the same time.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t use cold to boost your production of brown fat, and thus increase your metabolism; doing both can optimize your metabolism to burn fat more efficiently in the long run.
You can also “take the cold with you” even in warmer months by utilizing cold showers, which can have a similar effect. Typically, it’s best to start off by turning the water to cold at the end of your hot shower for a few seconds, then work up the time you spend under the cold water. Don’t worry – it gets easier!
So in short: yes, you do burn more calories in the cold than you would in the heat – but not by a ton. There’s no replacement for eating at a calorie deficit and training hard for losing weight, but that doesn’t mean that the extra calories burned in the cold weather can’t help.
So don’t depend on standing outside in the cold instead of working out – that calorie burn can take a long time – but it might be a good idea to spend more time enjoying the views and the winter air in addition to hitting the gym!