Do You Burn More Calories in the Cold?
Heading out in the cold may actually be one of the best ways to boost your workout results.
By Alyssa Shaffer
Medically reviewed by Roxana Ehsani, MS
If cool weather is your cue to hunker down in the gym, it may be time to rethink that strategy. Some evidence suggests that you may burn more calories when you break a sweat in the cold.
There’s even a new boutique fitness spot capitalizing on that idea. At Brrrn in New York, the climate is between 45–60 degrees Fahrenheit.
But how does the science of those effects pan out? Health spoke to experts who weighed in and offered pointers on working out in cold weather to burn extra calories.
What Happens in Your Body in the Cold
Humans have two different types of fat cells. White fat cells store energy from the food we eat and are also the kind that is associated with weight gain. And brown fat cells burn calories to heat our bodies.
According to a study published in 2014 in Diabetes, our bodies tend to produce more brown fat cells when exposed to colder temperatures than normal. Those brown fat cells keep us warm, so we need more when the temperature drops.
Another reason the chilly workout trend is effective is that the cold causes us to shiver as a way of warming up. That process is known as thermogenesis, which increases body temperature by burning more calories.
Beyond that, you may work harder when you’re not distracted by sweltering temperatures.
“It feels easier to exercise in a cooler climate,” said Pamela Geisel, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, told Health. And the better you feel, the longer or harder you’re willing to push yourself than typical.
How Often Should You Exercise in the Cold?
So, should you always be working out in the cold? Not necessarily.
“If you are exercising at a sustained hard intensity [like a difficult run or a boot-camp workout], it doesn’t make a big difference whether you are in a cool environment or a more temperate one,” John Castellani, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, told Health.
The reason is fairly simple: You’re working enough to heat your body thoroughly. So, your body no longer has to burn extra brown fat cells to stay warm.
How To Safe While Working Out in the Cold
If you’re heading outside for a frosty workout, there are a few things to keep in mind, including:
- Maximize benefits: For instance, you’ll want to exercise at a temperature between 50–53 degrees Fahrenheit. You may consider investing in cold-weather workout gear when the weather drops below that. Also, you may need to navigate icy or snowy surfaces, which can mean poor footing and a greater risk of falling than normal.
- Prioritize your warm-up: Even at moderately cold temperatures, your body needs some time to warm up. If you go too hard too soon, your risk of injury increases, said Geisel. So, do some dynamic stretching before heading out. Then, once you’re outside, start slowly and give your body ample time to adjust.
- Dress warmly: The National Institute of Aging (NIA) also recommends that you dress in several layers of loose clothing to trap warm air between them. A waterproof coat or jacket, a hat, scarf, and gloves will also protect you if it’s snowy or rainy.
- Wear the right shoes: Additionally, pay attention to your footwear. Winter weather can leave slippery conditions. Be extra careful around snow and icy sidewalks, so you don’t slip and fall.
- Keep warm and dry: You must know how long you’re outside after your workout, especially if your clothes are soaked in sweat. Even at a relatively mild temperature, there’s a risk of hypothermia. Hypothermia develops when heat loss exceeds heat production. Symptoms include being chilly, severe shivering, and confusion. If you start noticing any of those signs, head inside immediately.
Who Should Avoid Exercising in the Cold?
Though exercising outdoors is safe for most people, it is important to check with a healthcare provider if you have any concerns, especially heart disease or other health conditions.
Dry, cold air can also trigger asthma. When you exercise, your body demands more oxygen. So, you breathe faster and deeper than normal. And often, you breathe through your mouth, which is dryer and cooler than when you breathe through your nose.
Also, dressing warmly and safely when exercising outdoors on cold days to avoid hypothermia is especially important for older adults and children. Limited communication ability or impaired mobility makes it difficult to notice hypothermia in children. And older adults may have low subcutaneous fat, leading to a reduced ability to sense temperature.
A Quick Review
Cold-weather exercise can burn off extra calories because of the physiological changes in your body during cold weather. So, as much as you may dread the cold, working out in cool weather can be good for your body, especially if you dress safely.
Be sure to follow these few stay-safe strategies and keep the benefits of exercise going through all seasons.