When it comes to tackling obesity, eating right and staying active are usually the way to go. But a research team in the Netherlands says there's an environmental factor that might help and that is often overlooked: the cold.
We're not talking bone-chilling temperatures that'll make you shiver endlessly, but a milder cold between 62 and 77 degrees.
Along with a healthful lifestyle, gradually lowering indoor temperatures can do the body good, says Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, a biologist at the Maastricht University Medical Center.
How? By keeping the room a little cooler, your body has to use more calories to maintain a toasty 98.6.
"In the long term, that can have an effect on your energy balance and body weight," van Marken Lichtenbelt tells Shots. He and his colleagues outline the evidence for the idea in a commentary published Wednesday in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.
The key seems to be activating brown fat or, as scientists call it, brown adipose tissue. Unlike the more familiar white fat, brown fat contains a lot of heat-generating mitochondria, the power plants of cells. When the body needs to raise the temperature, brown fat burns up calories to get the job done.
The only known way to activate this fat is exposure to the cold, says Dr. Aaron Cypess, an endocrinologist at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. "Before you shiver, your body is already turning on the heat from the brown fat," he tells Shots.
But in order to take advantage of brown fat, it means forgoing warm, cozy offices and homes for ones that are slightly cooler, at least some of the time. Then your body has to work to maintain its thermal balance.
"What is needed is for the building to get more temperature variation over time, along with drifting temperatures," van Marken Lichtenbelt says. That can mean keeping the entire office a little cooler during the winter or varying the temperatures in different rooms, he adds.
Turning down the heat from time to time isn't as bad as you might think. Gradually decreasing the temperature, he says, makes the body more comfortable with cooler temperatures — a process known as cold acclimatization.
But don't expect a self-induced cold snap to lead to magical weight loss. This strategy works best, van Marken Lichtenbelt says, when combined with plenty of exercise and eating better.