There seems to be some contradictory opinions on whether cold temperature exposure leads to fat loss or fat gain. Before I share my current thoughts, I do want to say that regardless of fat loss, I find cold weather training to highly beneficial for the reasons I listed in the post My Cold Weather Challenge To You. Read that post for the full list, but the two primary reasons are to expand your comfort zone and to build resiliency against minor stressors.
Ice close up by Lucid Nightmare
Richard Nikoley spoke briefly about his positive fat loss results with cold exposure during his Ancestral Health speech Self-experimentation: the best science. In the audience was Seth Roberts, author of the Shangri-La Diet and a leader in the self experimentation field. Seth mentioned that he gained weight doing cold showers and then lost it once he stopped.
That was interesting to me, so I located his blog post Cold Shower Report (2). In this post, Seth mentions his weight gain was 2 pounds and that his shower time was between 4-5 minutes. He also mentioned a study showing female swimmers lost less weight that those that exercised on land, presumably because the water was cold.
Finally, I have to mention the Ice Age chapter in The 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. That chapter details a cold exposure protocol that helped his case study client lose 28.6 pounds of fat in 6 weeks. Like other things Tim has written, it isn’t the instructions I have an issue with, it is the expectation. Also, Ferriss lost a lot of trust with me with his From Geek to Freak chapter, which I cover in the post How Tim Ferriss REALLY Gained 34 pounds of Muscle in 28 Days.
I really felt cold temperature exposure helped me lean out. I used a combination of not wearing a coat in the winter and cold showers of varying lengths. However, once I was lean I didn’t find cold exposure to be of any help with getting ab definition. In fact, I suspected that like Seth, I was starting to gain some weight. I scaled back on the cold exposure and am leaner now.
I think I can resolve all the differences or at least I am going to try. Cold exposure on a body that already has a decent amount of fat won’t trigger the growth of new fat, as that body is already well insulated. That body would respond to the cold threat by triggering the activation of BAT (Brown Adipose Tissue) which could lead to fat loss. This works up until a point. Once you have flat abs, how would the body respond to chronic cold stress? Possibly by gaining fat to protect core temperature.
2 Different Strategies
If you are overweight, I don’t think you have anything to lose by attempting some cold temperature exposure protocol. You could use cold showers, not wear a jacket or place an ice pack between the shoulder blades. Monitor your progress and adjust accordingly.
If you are already lean, you still want the benefits of cold exposure, but you don’t want to risk fat gain. Earlier this year, I came up with a protocol to deal with this challenge, which I outlined in the post A High Intensity Approach to Cold Weather Training.
While studying the High Intensity Training approach to weight lifting, I wondered if those concepts could be applied to cold temperature exposure. HIT workouts are extremely intense, very brief and highly effective. The goal is to trigger certain physiological and hormonal responses and then allow the body to respond.
I also described my Cold HIT protocol.
At the end of your daily shower, turn the water to as friggin cold as you can handle without having a heart attack. Do deep slow breathing and relax. Aim the cold water directly between your neck and shoulder blades. Hold this for 30 seconds. End the shower. That is it.
The shoulder blades are the region with the highest concentration of Brown Adipose Tissue. None of the cold water is aimed at my core. My temperature tolerance is just as strong as it was when I did extended cold temperature exposure. And I have been able to stay lean.
Note that I am just a dude with a blog and not a health professional. This is all speculation. Your results may vary.
Aug 24, 2011 — 12:59 pm
Art de Vany talks a lot about brown adipose tissue – but I can’t say that I understand the point he is trying to make…
Aug 24, 2011 — 4:57 pm
@GWhitney – I embedded a video of De Vany talking about BAT in this post.
Sep 4, 2011 — 10:04 pm
First I want to say, I enjoyed reading your posts of IF. I might still try it.
I’m a 4HB reader… lost my 20 lbs in the first 3 months, but pretty much stalled out there. Tried everything from ice baths to PAGG to Cissus, BOSU balls and Kettlebells. But alas the thing that got me past 25 lbs and almost 30 lbs now was Atkins induction phase.
Now with introductions aside. What I’ve experienced in my own self experiments were nights where I did cold bath soaks (20 min @ 68deg) I lost more body fat than on nights I didn’t do cold baths. For instance I did a cold soak last night and noticed that this morning I had gained 1.1 lbs (I do daily measuring via a withings scale). My bodyfat went from 38 lbs to 36.1 but my lean mass went from 134.4 to 137.4. I also feel like I’ve seen similar results on swim days.
Could it be that there’s a point where individuals don’t lose weight while swimming/cold soaking? I think it’s because they’re also gaining more lean muscle than the fat their losing. Also I wouldn’t attribute just the soak to gaining a lot more lean mass, yesterday I was recovering from my Friday workout session.
In short, I think weight gain, or lack of weight loss while swimming and cold bathing is attributed to increased lean mass.
Sep 5, 2011 — 7:17 am
@Ben – I still believe fat loss is 80-90% diet. Exercise and cold temperature hacks are the remainder. I primarily do cold weather exposure for resiliency and not fat loss. And like exercise, I try and do the least amount possible to accomplish my goals. I think this is what makes me different than other fitness enthusiasts.
The body adapts to stressors. I am continually altering mine, be they cold temperature, fasting or exercise. Once an adaptation takes place, remove it or alter it in some way. for you that might mean taking a break from the cold exposure or increasing the intensity at a reduce duration (colder but shorter).
For me my HIT Cold Water protocol is getting too easy. I’ll take a month off and wait for fall to arrive in Seattle and then resume outdoor exposure into winter.