A Burning Issue: Temperature Modification May Aid Weight Loss

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If you’re looking to lose weight, consider hot and cold therapies to support your efforts.

Hot! Heat, Sweat, Saunas & Fat Loss

The use of saunas dates back at least 3,000 years to the Mayans. Many cultures have embraced heat to help purify their bodies, recover from sports or illness, or, simply, to relax.

Modern dry saunas use wood or electricity to heat air as high as 190°F. Infrared saunas keep temps between 120°F and 140°F. Infrared heat penetrates fat and muscle about 3 to 4 centimeters. Because of this, people sweat more vigorously at lower temperatures than in traditional saunas, and the experience takes less of a toll on the cardiovascular system.

Athletes such as boxers and wrestlers who need to hit certain weights have successfully used saunas to lose weight in short periods of time. For the rest of us, regular sauna use can keep us from feeling stiff or sore post workouts. What better way to stay motivated to exercise?

In addition to improving flexibility, sauna bathing speeds the body’s excretion of metabolic waste, reduces oxidative stress post workout, and can improve performance in our next athletic session. Cortisol levels—often linked to weight gain—are also decreased after sauna sessions.

Note: Heart patients should check in with their doctors before using saunas.

Shiver Me Timbers! Cooler Temperatures Boost Metabolism

Shivering is the body’s way of trying to stay warm. It increases our resting metabolic rate, and we burn more calories.

But you don’t need to be freezing to boost metabolism. Regular exposure to cooler temps—but not so cold that you are shivering—increases calorie burn in a phenomenon called nonshivering thermogenesis (NST).

According to the Netherlands’ Maastricht University, NST can boost calorie burn by between a few percent and 30 percent in healthy young and middle-aged people. One study found that middle-aged men who spent two hours a day for four weeks in a 62.6°F environment decreased their body fat. One very small study conducted by Maastricht University had eight overweight men in their late 50's with Type 2 diabetes sit in a 57°F room six hours a day for 10 straight days. At the end of the study, the men’s bodies metabolized glucose 43 times more efficiently than when the study began.

Scientists have found that time in the cold activates and increases the brown fat in our body. Brown fat, the opposite of unhealthy white fat, burns calories to help generate heat. Adults carry tiny deposits of brown fat in the neck and upper backs. We lose brown fat as we age—men to a greater degree than women. Those with higher levels of brown fat have higher metabolic rates, greater insulin sensitivity, better blood sugar control, and tend to be slimmer. In one study, people who slept in rooms kept at 66°F increased their levels of brown fat, almost doubling it in four weeks.

Cryotherapy & Weight Loss

People are experimenting with ways to use cold therapy, or cryotherapy, to lose fat. CoolSculpting is a medical procedure in which fat deposits get frozen. The body naturally removes the dead cells over several months. Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) has scantily clad people stand in a deep-freeze tank, where they are exposed to subzero temperatures for a few minutes.

People looking for cheaper forms of cryotherapy are adopting DIY methods. Some drape their necks with ice wraps to lower body temperature. Others end each shower with a blast of cold water to the back of the neck. Others go old school—getting outside to walk, ski, or skate.

Sources: 

“Activation and recruitment of brown adipose tissue as anti-obesity regimens in humans” by T. Yoneshiro and M. Saito, Ann Med, 3/15

“Brown fat activation mediates cold-induced thermogenesis in adult humans in response to a mild decrease in ambient temperature” by K.Y. Chen et al., J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 7/13

“Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners” by G.S. Scoon et al., J Sci Med Sport, 8/07

“Effects of far-infrared sauna bathing on recovery from strength and endurance training...” by A. Mero et al., Springerplus, 7/7/15

“Exposure to cold temperatures can help boost weight loss,” www.ScienceDaily.com, 1/22/14

“Impact of age on the relationships of brown adipose tissue with sex and adiposity in humans” by C. Pfannenberg et al., 7/10;

“Temperature-acclimated brown adipose tissue modulates insulin sensitivity in humans” by P. Lee et al., Diabetes, 11/14

Contributor: 

Lynn Tryba

Lynn Tryba is the Chief Content Officer at Taste for Life magazine. Over the past 20 years, her journalism has appeared in Psychology Today and Robb Report, among other national magazines.