Cold temperatures may be the worst, but they can also boost your performance when it comes to weight loss and obesity prevention, as they ultimately force the body to expend more energy, a new study from Maastricht University in the Netherlands has found.

Dr. Wouter var Marken Lichtenbelt, an associate professor at Maastricht University Medical Center and lead author of the study, said in a press release that the research explores the surprising benefits of a traditionally overlooked exercise environment. "Since most of us are exposed to indoor conditions 90 percent of the time, it is worth exploring health aspects of ambient temperatures," he said. "What would it mean if we let our bodies work again to control body temperature? We hypothesize that the thermal environment affects human health and more specifically that frequent mild cold exposure can significantly affect our energy expenditure over sustained time periods.”

Cold Temperatures and Weight Loss

Prevailing research tells us that trembling, shivering, and other bodily responses to cold temperatures are all part of a sophisticated heating mechanism that helps us power through the winter months without dying from hypothermia. During intense periods, this heat production can drive a fivefold increase in our metabolic rate, allowing the body to process energy and burn fat much faster. What the current study shows is that this process may be harnessed to boost exercise results and fend off the weight gain of a sedentary, 21st century lifestyle.

Specifically, the paper makes the case for a more variable indoor temperature — particularly in shared environments such as office buildings, where the thermostat is usually set to approximate the worker’s body temperatures. The authors, who have been studying the effects of cold temperatures for about a decade, cite several previous research efforts that support this. One example is a study from last year in which a team of Japanese researchers showed that daily two-hour exposure to temperatures around 62 degrees can yield a significant decrease in body fat within six weeks.

Environments that are too warm and cozy, the authors argue, increase your risk of weight gain as well as your vulnerability to temperature fluctuations. "Indoor temperature in most buildings is regulated to minimize the percentage of people dissatisfied," they wrote. “This is evident in offices, in dwellings and is most pronounced in care centers and hospitals. By lack of exposure to a varied ambient temperature, whole populations may be prone to develop diseases like obesity. In addition, people become vulnerable to sudden changes in ambient temperature."

Cool Down, Lose Weight

Why, then, has the warm and fuzzy feeling of 75-degree heat not been weighed against the health benefits of the low 60s in other studies? According to Lichtenbelt, the research is there, but most of it is limited to specialized inquiry aimed to help subsets of the work force. It is also a pain to investigate.

“One reason for relatively little research on this topic is that much research in the past was focussed on extreme temperatures related to military and fire workers,” he wrote in an email to Medical Daily. “A few thermoregulatory studies in the past on mild cold have been carried out, but it was not until the rediscovery of brown fat in humans that the interest increased again. Finally, health aspects are to be expected on the long term, which is extremely difficult to study.”

Ultimately, the research effort comes in response to the growing need for new points of inquiry in the battle against obesity. With a more than a third of the U.S. population living with obesity, exercise and diet interventions become inadequate tools of prevention. The new findings hint at a future where weight control is no longer limited to the gym, but an ongoing effort that permeates everyday life.

Source: Van Marken Lichtenfelt W, Kingma B, Van Der Lans A, Schellen L. Cold exposure — an approach to increasing energy expenditure in humans. Cell. 2014.