Don't Curse the Cold: Shivering May Help Burn Body Fat

Image: A man walks through a steam cloud in frigid cold temperatures in Manhattan, New York.
A man walks through a steam cloud in frigid cold temperatures in New York. BRENDAN MCDERMID / Reuters file

If you’re looking for a silver lining in the cold-fest that is Winter 2014, look no further than your waistline. Shivering may be as good as exercise to help you drop a few pounds, a new study finds.

Shivering's weight-loss upside is linked to a hormone produced by the body’s muscles, according to research from the National Institutes of Health published Tuesday in the journal Cell Metabolism. When a body trembles from the cold, it releases irisin, also known as the “exercise hormone,” which stimulates fat tissue to produce heat so the body can maintain its core temperature.Increases in irisin turns the body’s white fat into the more metabolically active brown fat, which helps the body burn more calories.

The researchers wanted to find out if shivering could produce the same effects on irisin as exercise, explains lead author Dr. Francesco S. Celi, chair of the division of endocrinology and metabolism at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Ten healthy volunteers exercised at maximal aerobic capacity on a stationary bike. To induce shivering, participants were put under cooling blankets set to slightly more than 53 degrees Fahrenheit. The researchers found that irisin levels produced through exercise were comparable to shivering.

Although the researchers are not saying we should dump our parkas for T-shirts when it’s 12 degrees outside, they do think there is something to be said for finding ways to burn more energy.

The hope is that these findings, and others, will eventually lead to some type of drug to promote irisin production, and perhaps stem the tide of obesity.

In the interim, we could stand outside for a few seconds or do what a scientist does. While Celi doesn’t copy one of his colleagues who “. . . only cold showers now,” he says, “I did lower the thermostat a bit at home.”