Cold Exposure:

The Healthiest Activity You Aren't Doing But Should Start Today!

I typically don’t give much of my time or effort towards educating about body composition, simply because I believe there are more important goals to have.  Function always trumps figure in my humble opinion.

However, in the case of Cold Exposure, you are knocking out several birds with one stone including fat loss, depression management, immune boosting, and more.  If you are not already taking cold showers, cold walks, or throwing an ice pack on your shoulders at night, you’ll want to start doing so by the end of this Blog.

Without getting to deep into the science of weight loss, I want to cover a few terms so stay with me.  For starters, lets agree that weight management is a relationship of thermodynamics; energy in and energy out. (Notice I didn’t say calories.  The body will respond differently to raw vegetables than it will to fig newtons. If calorie counting worked, we wouldn’t have doctorate programs covering the subject matter).  Clearly the intake portion comes from our diet, but the expenditure portion comes from more than just exercise.  Here are the major different avenues of energy expenditure;

          Activity-Induced energy expenditure (exercise)

          Diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT) - The energy required by the body to consume, digest, and manage food.

          Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) - Energy required for maintaining homeostasis regarding the body’s normal functions like breathing, healing, etc.

*With Cold exposure we will be focusing on increasing NEAT, and mentioning other fantastic benefits that result when you get comfortable being uncomfortable. Also, lets define “cold”, because I’m not talking about a polar plunge here. To stay consistent with the literature, we’ll say any temp between 45 degrees to 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

There is a certain amount of energy required to keep your body temperature in a relatively narrow range as to not disturbed vital bodily functions.  The more extreme your environments (hot or cold) the more energy it takes to maintain that sweet spot of body temp.  In the case of cold, there is a type of fat call Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT), or brown fat, which is mostly located around vital organs and in the upper back and chest area which, among other things, is stimulated to help increase core body temp. Think of it as your body’s fat burning furnace.  By exposing yourself to cold showers, cold walks, or cold packs on the upper back and neck, your body adapts by activating more BAT which not only increases your metabolic activity (caloric consumption) during the cold exposure, but continues to be elevated long after the exposure.  Simply put, by simulating brown fat your resting metabolic rate will increase and so will your NEAT.

*quick side note.  There is also interesting yet conflicting studies about the effect cold exposure has on Adiponectin, which functions in the body to break down fatty acids and aid in muscle building.  It’s thought elevations of this protein may play in a big role in improving the body composition in relation to cold exposure.

More importantly than increasing your energy expenditure, the repeated cold exposure will most definitely improve your will power!  I’m completely serious by the way.  Will power is not something we have an infinite amount of.  It fatigues just like a muscle.  However, it can be strengthened and improved just like muscles with repeated training.  The will power it takes to maintain a cold exposure routine will carry over to other aspects of eating healthy, working out, or wherever you choose to focus it!

Additionally, there have been countless studies performed on a gentleman named Wim Hof, aka “The Ice Man”, and through these studies we’ve learned a few more things about cold exposure.  First, it’s abundantly clear through these experiments that immune markers increase with cold exposure, not decrease.  So the old wife’s tale of “put on your jacket or you’ll catch a cold” is false, and arguably counter productive.  Furthermore, cold exposure has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression by bringing balance to hormones like Cortisol and Serotonin and improving the relationship between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous system.  These studies have been replicated several times and I suggest looking into some of Wim Hof’s podcast interviews like the this one with Ben Greenfield:

Protocols to experiment with:

1)      Start with a shower for 1 min of warm water. Step out from under the water, turn the hot water down significantly, but not cold enough to induce involuntary shivering, and apply soap/shampoo then step under and rinse for 4-5 minutes.  Change water back over to hot (boarder line uncomfortable hot) for an additional minute, finishing with one more uncomfortable chilly session for the last 2-3 minutes.  Best if done in the evening as levels of insulin are typically lower at this time.

2)      Cold pack on the upper back/chest for 20 min each night.

3)      30-45 min “cool-cold” walks keeping head, feet, and hands covered and comfortable.

In closing, benefits of cold exposure reach way beyond fat loss!  Most of us are becoming less resilient across the board because we have allowed happy to become synonymous with comfortable.  We strive to be comfortable 24/7 which leaves us more susceptible to sickness, depression, fatigue, or pain anytime we get pushed out of our ever narrowing feel good window.  Expand your comfort zone.  Expand it with new experiences, new people, new food, more movement, and of course, cold exposure. You will become a better, more resilient person because of it.  And a person with less fat, if that's your thing!