Cold Exposure, Dieting, and Willpower

Two weeks later and I’m still 199 and holding. As the temperatures and hours of sunshine have dropped, my appetite has increased. Now I have a new theory that I’ll run past my super smart commenters.

Almost a decade ago I began the practice of cold temperature exposure, which I document on the Cold Weather Exposure page. It has been one of my proudest health achievements. After 7 years in San Diego, I trained my body to throw off heat as the temperature dropped. My comfort range has greatly expanded.

I even have developed a slight disdain for healthy young men that dress for winter in mildly chilly weather. The Temperature Wimps of San Francisco is a post that best captures my feelings on this topic.

Is Cold Exposure Good For Fat Loss?

The topic of burning fat using cold exposure has been batted around for several years now. The consensus has turned against the idea. Probably the best article I’ve read on the topic is Cold Showers for Weight Loss: Do They Work?, which (spoiler alert) says they don’t.

The short version is the math doesn’t work in your favor. And I agree with the conclusions, but I my view is a bit more complex.

If you are a dumpy couch potato with a lot of weight to lose, not only do you need to exercise and tighten up your diet, but I also think there is a benefit to toughening up in general. Expanding one’s temperature zone via cold exposure is one method. A cold shower is not going to make you ripped, but the mental strength you build from actions that push your comfort zone will make developing more effective dietary and exercise habits easier.

Side note: The people most claiming to get fat loss benefits from cold exposure seem to be thick-wristed (endomorphic) men between 20-40 years old with 50 – 100 pounds to lose. Perhaps their body responds better in some way? Perhaps the combination of more muscle and more surface area works in their favor? 

Increase the Heat?

As much as I like engaging in cold exposure, I also recognize it is not a zero effort endeavor. There is a willpower cost. That could be the cold shower or be underdressing for that long walk in the chilly air. Right now my primary goal is to drop weight. Maybe just 10 pounds, but they are the last 10 pounds, which are the hardest 10 pounds. I’m going to need all my willpower.

With that said, I’m thinking of going warmer this winter than I normally would. Not wimpy like everyone else, but less extreme. Somewhere in the middle and just for this winter or until I’ve reached and locked in my ideal weight for a month or two.

Good idea?

Published by

MAS

Critical MAS is the blog for Michael Allen Smith of Seattle, Washington. My interests include traditional food, fitness, economics, and web development.

11 thoughts on “Cold Exposure, Dieting, and Willpower”

  1. As a resident of the sub-arctic (snowed today, BTW), I was extremely hopeful for health and weightloss benefits of cold. I even helped to beta test and study the Cool-Fat-Burner vest. I think that the science is there to show that cold exposure should lead to faster weight loss, but I’m unsure as to the actual amount. I was a thick-wristed “husky” fellow when I was trying it, and it seemed to help, until it didn’t.

    I put cold-exposure for weight loss in the “you should try” category. I’m sure there are health benefits even if the weight lost is not fantastic.

    My nagging feeling is that exposure to cold sets up up for conservation of fat and increased hunger.

    The polar explorers who pull heavy sleds where the windchill is -80 need to eat sticks of butter on top of the many calories they consume in order to maintain their weight, but this is after many hours per day of heavy exertion wearing very heavy clothing and boots. When you are dressed for -50, everything you do requires extreme effort, and heat loss from face and hands is rapid.

    I have a 2 mile snowshoe trail that I tromp almost every evening in temps down to -50. I don’t notice any extra weight loss when I transition from warm weather running to cold weather snowshoeing. If cold weather was the trick, I’d be the most ripped dude around, lol.

    But still, worth a try.

  2. @Tim – Very interesting comment, especially about increased hunger. I too have recently come to the belief that longer more shallow cold exposure does trigger increased hunger. Whereas brief deep cold exposure doesn’t. (for me)

    I think back to those posts of Richard Nikoley taking ice baths in his backyard. Not a good idea in Alaska or Seattle, but why not in San Jose, CA. How fast one warms up post-cold exposure in my experience is critical. See my Freeze the Animal experiment here:
    https://criticalmas.org/2013/06/cold-thermogenesis-5-years-later/

    So this winter, I’ll add one layer. I still don’t own a winter coat, nor do I plan to buy one.

  3. Wow, 2008. That’s like a million years ago. haha. I wear a T-shirt even down to -50 for short jaunts outdoors…across the parking lot at work, stores, or to go get the paper at the end of the driveway. If I’m going to be outside more than about 10 minutes, I start wearing a light jacket at about 40 degrees, and a heavy parka at 0. It gets so cold here that you get “snotcicles,” lol.

    It’s definitely possible to build up a good resistance to cold, I rarely shiver unless I get cold and wet and mildly hypothermic. And, yes, I agree that some intense cold during summer has a much different effect than chronic cold exposure of winter. I regularly go swimming (in summer) in water that’s in the 40’s. Very invigorating.

  4. After reading your posts a few years ago I undertook cold weather conditioning and I was rather impressed with the results, even though I grew up in a part of the world with cold winters (New England) and have lived for many years with not so cold but damp, windy winters (NL). I now wear considerably less clothing in winter than most people, adjusting for wind and rain of course.

    The downside for me is that it has made me increasingly uncomfortable in hot weather. You had some scorching heat in Seattle this summer. How did you manage?

  5. @Tim – That is some damned impressive cold exposure. Someday I hope to push my boundaries further. But LEAN first.

    @Colin – In Nov 2009 after my first serious year of cold exposure, I stepped off the plane in the very hot and humid Bangkok, Thailand and felt like someone was choking me. But within a day, I was acclimated. The strength we build going cold works for us when it gets hot. And like cold, it just takes time.

  6. @MAS
    This reminded me of comments made by 1980’s fitness guru Covert Bailey of “Fit or Fat” fame. He stated that he had observed from his practice that swimmers tend to retain a layer of bodyfat. He surmised that it might be due to the body wanting to be able to retain heat while in water. Google “Covert Bailey Fat Swimmers” to see his comments from his book “Smart Exercise.”

  7. @Jim – I’m less sure of the swimmer argument than I used to be. Today there are too many examples of elite level swimmers and surfers with ripped abs. Even the heavier Olympic swimmers have some ab definition.

    The body fat may be protective from the heat, but would also serve as a drag in competition. Take off a few pounds and gain a 1/2 second.

  8. @MAS
    I agree re: elite swimmers. Also, while CB did state that elite runners generally had lower body fat % than elite swimmers, he said his general point was not meant to be about athletes at all, but that he didn’t think swimming was the best exercise strategy for the average couch potato to lose weight. For context, this was in an era (1980’s) when cardio was generally emphasized over, say, diet, for weight loss.

  9. Hi MAS, I think the swimmers who tend to have more body fat are not the competitive pool swimmers (who tend to train in heated pools) but the open water swimmers to train for endurance in (usually) colder water

  10. After reading about Walter Kempner, MD—Founder of the Rice Diet, and also using pressure cooking for rice/beans, and subsequent cooling to increase RS….. I’m stewing on the amount of dietary misinformation through the years.

    Nice to read about Tim Steele’s 500 gram carb meals! I simply mix beans and rice inside a large burrito.

    Carb Power!

    Marc

  11. I am from Spain and we usually reach 25Fº at winter (-4ºC), always liked cold exposure, never liked a too hot environment. I suffer at summer lol.

    Oh well I share the same disdain at people wearing too much clothes when its like 70F and they’re on a jacket, WTF?

    I also have the impression that prolonged cold exposure increases appetite, which is very logical. So I’d like to address that an appropiate relationship with food intake and a correct diet is a must before going Cold Exposure, at least if you plan to lose body fat. One can gain weight if his food intake gets out of control due to increased hunger….

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