Can Shivering Help Burn Fat?


by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
shiveringhelpburnfat

Photo Credit: flickr

Would you ever put these three together in an equation?

Feeling Cold + Shivering = Reducing White Adipose Tissue

To understand how that works, let’s cover some basics about adipose (fat) tissue.

The adipose tissue that we have in our bodies comes in two colours: white and brown. Each hold their own individual meaning.

White adipose tissue stores energy. It is the type of fat that one can see. It also pads our internal organs acting as a thermal insulator and cushion.

However, there’s another type of fat in humans, which has been ignored until recently. It’s called brown fat and you can’t really see it when you look in the mirror. It is located primarily around the neck and collar bones.

Unlike white fat, this precious brown fat is metabolically active. In other words, it oxidises (burns) white fat.

So brown fat burns energy.

If maximally stimulated, it can burn off between 300 and 500 extra calories a day. And not just any calories, but calories stored in white fat reserves.

So just how can brown fat be stimulated to burn calories?

Turn down the heat or grab a glass of chilly water, and come join me as I show you just how you can help activate brown fat.

How do I activate brown fat?

You see, when you’re cold, brown fat is usually the first thing to activate to heat up your body. It generates body heat by burning the white fat.

In other words, exposing ourselves to cold temperatures can help oxidise (burn) white fat and also increase our metabolism in a healthy way. Such process is called cold thermogenesis.

Unfortunately, brown fat is present in very tiny amounts in adults. Some people have more, some have less.

If someone’s goal is to lose weight, their ideal scenario would be a higher number of brown fat cells and a lower number of white fat cells.

But can you increase the number of brown fat cells?

Yes, according to a 2014 study.

The researchers in the study discovered that shivering can actually stimulate the conversion of energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat.

They believe that the bonus to having more brown fat is that it is a potential therapeutic target against obesity and even diabetes.

Here’s how brown fat increments inside the body look like (Can you see the darker bits? That’s brown fat):

Brown fat increments. PET scan source: PMID 22851631

Brown fat increments. PET scan PMID 22851631

The shiver response and Irisin, a newly discovered hormone

When we are cold and we shiver, we generate heat in the body by activating our brown fat. This happens because our muscles contract mechanically in response to the environmental shift in temperature.

That shivering stimulates a hormone called Irisin, which is produced in our muscles. Irisin, discovered by Harvard scientists in 2012, does two major things in our bodies:

  1. It promotes the browning of fat to release energy, which causes weight (fat) loss.
  2. It improves glucose tolerance in the body, which can help prevent diabetes.

Irisin is the same hormone released during exercise, but in the case of cold exposure, you don’t even have to move!

Oh, and as a premium perk: Irisin can also slow the ageing process down by lengthening our telomeres. Remember, shorter telomeres are tied to stress and premature ageing.

Believe it or not, shivering for 10-15 minutes has been shown to produce the same amount of Irisin that exercising for an hour on the bicycle would.

Do you see the relationship and the remarkable metabolic effects of shivering?

Now, these comparisons do not imply that you should stop moving your body. We’re designed to move and there are a few health risks associated with too much sitting time (learn about “sitting science” here).

Building up your brown fat brigade

Some of us have very little brown fat. But we can help build that amount by training ourselves to become a little bit less uncomfortable in the cold. As we’ve just learned, the body can adapt fairly well to keep us warm.

In January 2014, a group of Dutch researchers showed that volunteers who were exposed to cold weather for a few hours a day for 10 days increased brown fat, felt more comfortable, and shivered less at 15ºC (59ºF).

There are several, safe ways to expose the body to cold temperatures. Here are a few ideas:

If you are in an already cold climate:

  • Taking a 20 minute walk when it's colder (also called a 'shiver walk').
  • Doing yoga in the chilly weather.
  • Considering slightly lighter clothing and lighter bed covers at night.
  • Lowering the thermostat or keeping windows open for a while.
  • Practising winter sports like skiing and snowboarding.

If you are in a hot climate:

  • Taking a cold bath up to your waist for 10 to 15 minutes. To prevent hypothermia, the water temperature should not be lower than 15-20°C (59-68°F).
  • Taking a cold shower for about 5 minutes.
  • Drinking ice cold water (to promote a similar shivering effect in the body).
  • Lowering the thermostat of your air-conditioning.
  • Seeking a soak in sea water, which is naturally colder, or taking a swim, even in a pool.
  • Surfing and water sports are (fun) ways to expose the body to cold temperatures.

Remember, whilst exposing yourself to colder temperatures, it is of utmost importance to keep it safe. Please be mindful of this and follow this link to educate yourself in the prevention of hypothermia.

What do you think?

Are you ready to cradle the cold? Did you ever try out cold thermogenesis for yourself, or have a client that has used it to build brown fat and lose weight? Do you have any other creative ideas to stimulate the shivering effect?

Let us know in the comments below and pass this along to someone you know might enjoy getting a cold boost!


Every other Thursday we share our research and actionable advice to help you and those you care about. If you enjoyed this, join our FREE updates.

42 Comments

  • Zoe

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    great ideas but the one ” Bumping up the air-conditioning.
    as in Australia we are constantly reminded that this is not good for the environment or our wallets

  • DEBRA

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    I hate feeling cold but there is something about seawater that even if the weather isn’t very warm I love going into it and can stay in for quite a while. My body must have known that it was doing me good! :-)

  • nick stocks

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    Move to Toronto , it is like the arctic here now , the wind is like a knife.

    • Deanna McCormack

      Reply Reply November 21, 2014

      Same in Maine, 20 Farentheit today. Nasty cold.

      I have to say that the location of brown fat makes sense. When I shiver (which is quite often) my shoulders tighten up as if I am trying to hold all of the heat in by clenching my shoulders to my neck… I will try to embrace it more, but I am still planning to move to a warmer climate so that it can be my choice :-)

  • Kevin Gilfoyle

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    This article was really interesting and informative. I cant wait to tell my wife. Maybe we can keep the gas bill down a bit.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply November 20, 2014

      Kevin, ha ha sounds like a great idea to me :-)

  • Heather Wright

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    Not sure I like the idea of being cold however I think I’ll go down the route of drinking cold water .

  • Elaine Giles

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    I loved this article and even more so the fact it was in written format, so many people now do things in video, I know we all respond in different ways to media, but it is so refreshing to be able to read such a well presented article.
    Very interesting – Thank You

    • Alex

      Reply Reply November 20, 2014

      Elaine – thanks so much for your beautiful feedback! :-)

  • Minhaz

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    These articles are really great! Thanks for providing continuous knowledge, I always learn something new and interesting every Thursday :D

    • Alex

      Reply Reply November 20, 2014

      Minhaz, I love to hear that you learn something new every Thursday! :-)

  • Jenny

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    Hi, very interesting reading!

    I’m wondering if there is any correlation to lack of brown fat and thyroid issues?

    If someone has hashimoto’s for instance and is always cold – are they able to produce brown fat? or conversely would they have more of it as they are shivering for a lot of the time?

    best wishes

    Jenny

    • Alex

      Reply Reply November 20, 2014

      Jenny, glad I could help! Research on Irisin’s interaction with other hormones is at very early stages, but I’m sure we’ll be hearing more given that they’re trying to create a synthetic version. Following your endocrinologist’s/doctor’s advice is a must if you have hypothyroidism :-)

      • jenny

        Reply Reply November 20, 2014

        Hi Alex,

        Thanks for your response :) i will def keep a lookout for more on this!

        :D x

  • Kim

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    Great article! Although I’m not sure I’m a fan of making my surroundings colder, I suffer terribly with the cold as it anyway! Maybe I already have lots of brown fat?! :)

  • Christine

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    Great article and I tell people all the time to drink cold beverages during the winter and to brave the cold to produce those energies you discussed.

    I just did a Bod Pod yesterday and it revealed that I was at 14.5% body fat for a distance runner (risk factor of low body fat). How would I calculate or find how much brown fat I have of the 14.5% of the body fat that I have? I am constantly cold so that is a plus for me. I have to yet gain weight to the ultra lean body fat of 15-18 percentile. Thank you so much for any feedback you may have. Christine

  • Dora Wint

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    I have always been a proponent of this theory, even before I knew about It is in. Have been keeping the heat down for years and never have had the best on in my bedroom. I am 70 and 5’6 and weigh 141 lbs. I work out five times a week also. I attribute keeping my husband’s Type 2 diabetes A1C level at 6.9 with 2 things a) 500 mgs.Magnesium daily and keeping the thermostat at 20C. Love your articles!!!!!

  • Bonnie

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    Sounds great, although I do not know if I am a good candidate for this since I have a low thyroid.

  • Brooke

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    Excellent article supporting why our Contenders (clients) at Camp Gladiator outdoor fitness should stick with our workout program even through the winter months! They can add another 300-500 calories burned to the 500-1200 they burn doing the workout! :)

    Thank you for explaining the science behind the “shiver effect”. Cryotherapy has become very popular in DFW area and claims to burn up to 500 calories from a 3 minute session. I never understood the “why” behind this claim but now it makes sense.

    What are your thoughts on cryotherapy?

    • Laura

      Reply Reply November 20, 2014

      Brooke, if your Camp Gladiator was in London I would join it in a heartbeat!!!

      I love the Thursday emails and I am planning to join one of your courses today, so excited!!

  • Tom

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    Interesting article. This is something strongly advocated by Tim Ferriss in the 4 Hour Body, and I think it works. If nothing else, starting the day with a pint of ice cold water will hydrate you and give you a mental boost for the day ahead.

  • Skip

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    This is good to know as I was in Green Bay last Sunday for the Packers game and the temp was 20 deg. & I shivered the whole time.

  • Katerina

    Reply Reply November 20, 2014

    I think the power plate machine have the same effect :-)

  • Christine Gibson

    Reply Reply November 21, 2014

    For years, to save my heating bill costs during the winter months, I automatically turn down my thermostat to 52 degrees. The highest I turn it up to during the daytime is 58 – 62 degrees. I always thought I was doing that to save energy costs; now, I know with my shivering, I am building up beneficial brown fat!

    I’ve also have lost a lot of weight and my coats no longer fit me at all. I finally gave them all to Good Will and Value Village.

    I’ve been “getting by” with a flannel sweat shirt when I take my walks or ride the bus to and from stores. I have ear muffs on my ears and mittens on my hands, but, I do a LOT of shivering! This cold does deplete my energy supply though, and I do find that troublesome. But, now, I am so glad to know I am actually doing two things which are so beneficial to my health! Keeping the temperature down in my home, enduring my cold nose, and shivering in a thin sweat shirt in 28 degree temperatures when I am outside in the bracing weather.

    I’ve thought that I really need to make myself a coat; but, maybe not. I am so enjoying these Thursday informative articles. Now, I need to turn down the dial on my heated blanket as well. With my cold hardwood floors throughout my home, my cat “Little Socks” loves sleeping on my heated bed. But, she could benefit from a little brown fat as well.

    Thank you Alex, for these penetrating articles giving us such wisdom.

    • Lisa

      Reply Reply November 21, 2014

      Christine, now I don’t feel so ‘weird’ hearing where your thermostat is at during the winter months! yeah! And yes, my cat could benefit from the shivering as well!

      It’s amazing how many people don’t like to be cold, but now we see that our shivering and cold noses (I have a cold nose right now as I sit here with my ski hat on inside my house) are actually for the sake of good health!

  • Michael

    Reply Reply November 21, 2014

    interesting, the documented cases of infants surviving for hours in freezing temps. from their brown fat being metabolized is nothing less than a miraculous self defense mechanism, and should be studied in great detail I always thought! Keep up the great research.

  • nick stocks

    Reply Reply November 21, 2014

    My memory has been jogged , my friends father is a scientist at the Univ. of Guelph , here in Ontario. They have been studying links in temperature and immunity benefits , they found being exposed to cold leads to less colds not more . hmmmm

  • Lisa

    Reply Reply November 21, 2014

    I know this may sound funny, but after hearing about this whole idea of cold thermogenesis I’ve become more inspired than usual to embrace the cold. I love the cold.
    My habit is to keep my house quite cool (in the winter that is) …I don’t even tell anyone what the real temp is (!)- but I am used to it.

    It has always made sense to me that we ought to allow our bodies to adapt to situations rather than being comfortable all the time. Once in a big while inconvenience yourself- it’s good for our human-ness!

    So I decided to compound the cold effect for my day today.

    Every day I walk in the morning…at 5:30am for an hour. I live near Phila, USA, so we are experiencing early cold here. I drink a 20 ounce glass of cold water before exiting my house. My morning walk is a shiver walk indeed, especially with the wind whipping around.

    I come home, and grab a 20 ounce glass of cold water, bring it into the shower with me, drink it (and it seemed I could have drank 50 ounces, it went down so easily), the last minute I turn the temp to cooler water before ending, get out of the shower in my “cool” house….another shiver whilst getting dressed.

    I have felt spectacular all day!

    Certainly not attributing it all to the enhanced cold experience but you can’t be a slacker if you are immersing yourself in coldness!

    cheers. ;-)

  • Tareen

    Reply Reply November 22, 2014

    Really nice article I had little knowledge about it. How this explains all. 10/10
    Thanks

  • Diana

    Reply Reply November 22, 2014

    Really interesting article. I’ve always been interested in the idea of people building up their immune system and “hardiness” by taking cold showers or swimming in the cold sea water. It never appealed to me as an idea – I shiver at the thought of it – but people who do it believe it strengthens them. My grandmother’s generation believed that it was a healthy thing to do, and the older I get the more I appreciate the value of their wisdom. Things like “eating your greens every day” and taking time to rest and recover fully from a virus to build up your immunity – they were so right.

    I also remember an elderly school teacher telling me years ago that the reason so many children were overweight was because they spent their time in overheated houses and schools, and spent less time outside in cold weather. She said their bodies didn’t have to burn calories to keep them warm so they got fatter. Again, that old wisdom we’ve forgotten.

  • suz

    Reply Reply November 23, 2014

    I’m wondering if it is a coincidence that it seems that ‘skinny’ people are always cold? Used to joke with them and say it is because they don’t have any body fat to keep them warm.

  • Vivi

    Reply Reply November 24, 2014

    Can anyone explain what is coolsculpting (Cryolipolysis)? It seems to involve chilling the skin and claims to reduce the fat stored by ‘killing off the fat cells’…. Does it relate in any way to the processes described in this discussion topic? Or is it just another ‘quick fix’ for those with more money than sense?

  • Vivi

    Reply Reply November 24, 2014

    There does seem to be some research on the effects of cold on White Fat – see the following link
    http://press.endocrine.org/doi/pdf/10.1210/jc.2014-2440

  • paul

    Reply Reply November 25, 2014

    Hi thanx for the great article “Can Shivering Help Burn Fat?” i already use this method and have passed it on to my friends & family by way of having cold showers which i find really effective and so do the ones who are brave enough to have tried it too!!………keep up the good work and thanx again.

  • Jo

    Reply Reply December 6, 2014

    For me personally when I am cold I cannot relax; I feel nervous and anxious, and crave more food. For me it is just awful if my house is cold or I am standing around shivering. And as far as food goes, I eat more when I am cold.
    That being said, I enjoy hydrotherapy and I imagine this would have the same effect! Hot sauna/steam room/tub followed by a cold plunge or shower and rest. Repeat! Feels amazing!

  • Steve

    Reply Reply December 10, 2014

    Hi guys I’m a bit late on this one, But can you measure in some way if your brown fat levels are high? The only reason I ask is i’ve always been pretty good in the cold weather trying to slow down the effects when winter hits by not putting on loads of kit clothes as soon as it gets cold. Could this mean I have more Brown fat cells? But how would I know?

  • Sam

    Reply Reply December 12, 2014

    Cold Thermogenesis is a major topic covered by the neurosurgeon, Dr Jack Kruse, on his website. There is no light bed time reading here, as he gets into the world of quantum physics on occasion!! He talks about a cold cycle within our genetic makeup that we rarely engage now we have the technology to keep warm. He lost 110 lbs of weight through exposure to cold, mainly in iced baths for hours on end. Exposure to cold at this level causes a leptin reset and reprogrammes the hypothalamus. Leptin is the hormone controlling fat loss/gain. I believe he says that it is important to have a healthy ratio of omega 3’s to 6’s already established in your body – 1:4 or less rather, than today’s norm (through poor diet) of 1: 20 or higher. WARNING:- DO NOT GO LEAPING INTO FREEZING WATER WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING THE PROCESS.

    As for my own experience of brown fat, in my twenties I used to work outside in winter on the farm in just a shirt. Overtime, I increased the levels of brown fat on my chest and back in particular and would glow with warmth. Brown fat (adipose tissue) is stacked with high numbers of mitochondria that sort of “short-circuit” in an energy burning mode to generate heat. Eating a heavy meal also often causes this process to turn on, as opposed to laying down body fat. You feel a rush of heat at the end of a meal. Normally mitochondria are known for powering muscles, especially the heart. As a bit of a side issue, it is worth supplementing with Ubiquinol, the active form of Co Enzyme Q10 as early as your 30’s, since we lose the ability to maintain manufacture of this vital substance for our mitochondria. It maybe one factor in our declining metabolic rate as we age. I think one final point to make is that these beautiful little structures are also the source of energy for our immune system, which is probably the most important reason to keep them functioning properly.

  • Tatiana

    Reply Reply June 14, 2015

    I love winter sports, so i go throught the whole year snowboarding
    as during the summer we can still hit the slopes in the snow centre that is only an hour away from us
    and definitely thinking of trying some of water sports such as kite-surfing
    x

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