The Shiver System
Wired examines the science and pseudo science behind using cold temperatures as a way to stimulate weight loss
Posted on 2/18/2013
Wired Magazine's Steven Leckart interviews Ray Cronise, a former NASA scientist experimenting with whether cold temperatures can stimulate the body to more effectively burn fat and promote weight loss.
Cronise got the idea back in 2008 while watching a TV program about Michael Phelps. The coverage claimed that, while training, the Olympic swimmer ate 12,000 calories a day. At the time, Cronise was on a diet of 12,000 calories per week. (He was carrying 209 pounds on his 5’9″ frame and wanted to get back down to 180.) Something didn’t add up. Even if Phelps had an exceptionally high metabolism and swam three hours a day, he still should have turned into a blob. Then it hit Cronise: Phelps was spending hours every day in water, which was sucking heat from his body. He was burning extra calories just to maintain his core temperature of 98.6.
That fall, Cronise grew obsessed. He avoided warmth altogether: He took cool showers, wore light clothing, slept without sheets, and took 3-mile “shiver walks” in 30-degree weather wearing a T-shirt, shorts, gloves, and earmuffs. In six weeks he shed 27 pounds, nearly tripling his weight-loss rate without changing his calorie-restricted diet.
While this idea has recently exploded into our culture of get-skinny-quick culture, the actual science behind this idea is still a bit murky. However, while scientists don't yet understand how this works, there is significant evidence that even moderate exposure to cold does result in a prolonged period of "fat burning" in the body.
Cronise put Leckart through a series of tests and did find that exposure to cold temperatures (not extreme temperatures like ice baths and ice packs, just cold water) did result in changes in his metabolism.
We’re looking at my total energy expenditure and respiratory quotient, or RQ, which reflects what kind of fuel I was burning. Ideally my RQ should stay as close to 0.7 for as long as possible, because that indicates 100 percent of the energy being generated by my body is coming from fat (RQ = CO2 eliminated/O2 consumed). When RQ shoots up to 1.0, the body is fueling itself on carbohydrates only. But sustained fat burning is the goal of cold exposure.
Cronise walks me through the graphs. During and after running, cycling, or swinging kettle bells and while I swam, my RQ hovered around 0.9, often spiking closer to 1.0. Not good. I was burning carbs instead of just fat.
But Cronise assures me that “slobbering in a tube underwater, looking like a bondage slave” was worth it. He points out that my RQ dropped noticeably; I was burning fat steadily every time I exited the pool. After the 20-minute swim in 70-degree water, my RQ averaged 0.73 for 15 minutes. Following a 20-minute swim in 60 degrees, I hit 0.695 for 12 minutes. After that first miserable soak in 60-degree water? 0.73 for 15 minutes.
The cold had a prolonged effect on my metabolism. The data confirms what Cronise has been saying: Water is an efficient way to force the body to produce a lot more heat for a sustained period of time. If my goal is to burn fat, I’m better off swimming—or even sitting—in San Francisco Bay than jogging or cycling, provided I let my body warm itself naturally afterward (no hot showers or sauna allowed).
Read the rest of the article for a little more in-depth look at the actual science behind the idea, and the possibility of an actual "diet pill" that works by recreating these effects on your metabolism.
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