I wrote most of this post a while ago, and then forgot about it. The recent blogosphere storm of comments regarding cold-induced thermogenesis caught me by surprise (), and provided a motivation to get this post out. Contrary to popular perception, I guess, cold-induced thermogenesis is an extensively researched topic. Some reasonably well cited references are linked here.
Let us backtrack a bit. When people say that they want to lose weight, usually what they really want is to lose is body fat. However, they frequently do things that make them lose what they do not want – muscle glycogen, water, and even some muscle protein. Physical activity in general depletes muscle glycogen; even aerobic physical activity.
Walking, for example, depletes muscle glycogen; but slowly, and proportionally to how fast one walks. Weight training and sprints deplete muscle glycogen much faster. Whatever depletes muscle glycogen also lowers the amount of water stored in myocytes (muscle cells), effectively reducing muscle mass. Depleted muscle glycogen needs to be replenished; protein and carbohydrates are the sources. If you deplete muscle glycogen through strength training, this will provide a strong stimulus for glycogen replenishment and thus muscle growth, even beyond the original level – a phenomenon called supercompensation ().
In conjunction with strength training, situations in which one burns mostly fat, and very little glycogen, should be at the top of the list for those wishing to lose weight by losing body fat and nothing else. These are not very common though. One example is nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), or heat generation from nonexercise activities such as fidgeting (). There is a great deal of variation in NEAT across individuals; for some it is high, for others it is annoyingly low.
Walking slowly is almost as good as NEAT for body fat burning, when done in conjunction with strength training. Up the pace a bit though, and you’ll be burning more muscle glycogen. But if you walk slowly you don’t burn that much body fat per unit of time. If you walk a bit faster you’ll burn more fat, but also more glycogen. C’mon, there is no way to win in this game!
This is why being physically active, in a “non-exercise way”, seems to be so important for health; together with strength training, limiting calorie intake, and all the while having a nutritious diet. These are not very common things in modern urban environments. Long term, there isn’t a lot of margin for error. It is ultimately a game of small numbers in the short term, played over long periods of time.
But there is an alternative if your NEAT is low – just chill. That is, another situation in which one can burn mostly fat, and very little glycogen, is exposure to mildly cold temperatures, but above the level that induces shivering (mild cold: 16 degrees Celsius or so; about 60 degrees Fahrenheit). Shivering in general, and particularly intense shivering, is associated with levels of muscle activity that would induce glycogen depletion () (). If muscle glycogen depletion happens while one is fasting, liver glycogen will be used to replenish muscle glycogen, and also to supply the needs of the brain – which is always hungry for glucose.
As the liver glycogen tank goes down beyond a certain point, and no protein or carbohydrates are eaten, the body will use amino acids from muscle to produce glucose. Muscle glycogen will be locked until it is needed. Interesting eh!? The body sacrifices muscle protein but doesn’t tap into muscle glycogen, which is only used to fuel violent muscle contractions. We are talking about fight-or-flight responses here. From an evolutionary perspective, sacrificing some muscle beats losing a lot of it to a predator any day.
Cold-induced thermogenesis is a very interesting phenomenon. The figure below, where open circles represent lean and closed circles obese folks, shows that it leads to different responses in lean and obese folks, and also that it presents a lot of variation across different individuals (like NEAT). This type of thermogenesis actually seems to be strongly associated with an increase in NEAT (); although it seems to also be associated with futile cycles used by the body to generate heat without any movement, as in thermogenesis during hibernation in certain animals () (). Having more brown fat as an adult, or being able to make brown fat more easily, is associated with more cold-induced thermogenesis; and also with a lower obesity risk.
In fact, cold-induced thermogenesis leads to an increase in energy expenditure that is comparable with that of another major energy sinkhole – overfeeding () (). Unlike overfeeding though, cold-induced thermogenesis does not require calories to go in. And, no, you don’t burn more than you take in with overfeeding.
How can one burn fat via cold-induced thermogenesis? Here are some ideas. Set the home thermostat to a mildly cold temperature in the winter (this will also save you some money). When it is a little cooler than normal, don’t wear heavy clothes. Take mildly cold showers, or end a warm shower with some mildly cold water.
What about more extreme cold exposure? It should be no surprise that one would feel pretty good after a dip in ice-cold water; that is, if the person does not suffer from a glycogen storage disease (e.g., McArdle's disease). At least in theory, that type of cold exposure should induce whole-body muscle glycogen depletion, just like an intense whole-body exercise session, with the resulting hormonal changes ().
Growth hormone should be up after that, perhaps for hours. Done right after weight training, or intense exercise, it may have a boosting effect on the hormonal response. But if you do that in the recovery phase (e.g., several hours after the weight training session), it should impair muscle recovery. It would be a bit like doing another strength training session, when the body is trying to recover from the previous one.