Is it true that people actually burn more calories when walking in cold weather? Research shows that people actually do burn more calories in winter and there are cases that you burn more when cold, but there are some important caveats. You don’t need to be cold to lose weight by walking, and you should make sure that you’re accounting for the challenges of walking in the winter. Here are the facts about being cold and burning calories, plus why purposely trying to exercise in the cold may actually be counterproductive.
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Don’t people gain weight in winter?
While people often do gain weight in winter, it’s likely not due to the weather alone. The holiday season is filled with huge meals, and cold temperatures can make it harder to walk or exercise. Studies have shown that Americans gain an average of 0.8 pounds (.4kg) just in the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is also a real disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which causes people to feel depressed, have less energy and also crave carbohydrate-heavy foods in winter. These effects can combine to cause people to put on weight.
Does science show you burn more calories in the cold?
Studies have actually found that exercising in winter burns more calories than exercising in spring when temperatures are warmer. A study on Wyoming hikers found that outdoor hikers burned 34% more calories in winter than spring (4,787 vs 3,822 for men, 3,880 vs 3,081 for women). The study author, Cara Ocobock, explained that when you’re cold, your body needs to expend extra energy to keep your body heat up.
There are a few caveats, however. Ocobock herself explained that winter hikers engaged in more vigorous activity than they did in spring. In winter, many participants did activities like cross country skiing or shoveled snow that were much tougher than simple hiking and walking. The results of the study could simply be down to winter outdoor exercise (especially in snow) being tougher than spring exercise.
Why you actually do burn more calories when cold
Your body actually does burn more calories when it’s cold – that much is not up to debate. In order to survive, your body needs to maintain a relatively constant temperature. According to Vox.com, when you get cold, your body engages in thermogenesis – raising your body heat. When you exercise in hot weather, your body also has to regulate its temperature. It can do this by sweating, but sweating doesn’t work to heat you up. Your body does this in 2 main ways – shivering and burning “brown fat.”
Shivering is actually your body using involuntary muscle movements to warm itself up. While shivering happens automatically and is difficult or impossible to stop, it’s unclear just how many calories shivering actually burns. SFGate.com claims that shivering can burn as much as 100 calories in 15 minutes. Aaron Cypess of the National Institutes of Health (as quoted in Vox.com) claims that in studies, participants only burned an extra 150-200 calories after spending an entire day in a cold room.
Burning “brown” fat
Brown fat is different than “white” fat, or the typical fat we think of as a store of energy. According to the Mayo Clinic, when your body becomes cold, it burns extra brown fat to create heat. Research is still ongoing on how your body produces brown fat and whether brown fat can use regular, white fat as fuel. Health.com notes that your body may produce more brown fat when exposed to cold, but that brown fat is in turn burned for heat by the body.
Burning calories by being cold is not as easy as it sounds
Even though your body does burn more calories when cold, it’s not as simple as just going out and walking in the winter. First, your body actually has to be cold to achieve this calorie-burning effect. Exercise itself generates heat and raises your body temperature – that’s why you sweat to cool yourself down. Sweating itself doesn’t burn calories – it simply means you need to drink more water to ensure you stay hydrated.
While your body may need to work a bit harder to regulate your temperature in cool weather, the natural warming effect of exercise does much of this for you. If you’re completely bundled up and sweating during your winter walks then you’re not shivering, which means your calorie burn is close to normal.
Cypess (from the NIH) notes that most of the calories that your body burns come in the form of your basal, or resting metabolic rate. The additional calories you burn while walking (and thermogenesis) only comprise a fraction of the overall number. Any increase in the calories you burn while walking is an even smaller fraction still.
You might actually burn more calories by being cold when you’re at rest, since you’re at rest for more of the day and your body doesn’t have walking or other cardio exercises to contribute to raising your body heat.
Be careful about exercising in the cold
If you do decide to do some cold weather walking, you’re probably better off ensuring that you stay warm rather than shivering your way to a few extra calories burned. It’s actually a myth that cold weather makes you get colds – research shows that cold and flu viruses are actually more virulent in colder weather and dry winter air makes your nose and threat more susceptible to viruses. Winter walkers getting colds or flu is not so much a factor of their skin being cold, but winter and colder temps in general.
Still, it is important to prevent frostbite and frost injuries by keeping yourself warm during winter walks. Sweat cools your body, but when it’s very cold outside your sweat can quickly make your body temperature drop. Frostbite is a risk in your extremities if not properly covered as well. There’s nothing wrong with getting outdoors and walking in the winter, but we don’t recommend getting yourself cold on purpose. Any extra calories you’d burn would be easier saved by cutting out one soda per day, or snacking a bit healthier.
Staying active in winter is key to keeping your weight under control and building active habits that you can maintain year-round. Yes, you may burn a few more calories when you’re cold, but you should be walking more if possible regardless of that small boost. Stay warm, stay active, and stay healthier this winter.
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