Indoor plumbing may be the single best advancement in the history of mankind. In the past, unless you were lucky enough to live in a bathwater climate like Hawaii, bathing, washing or drinking often meant hacking a hole in the ice first. (Writes the girl who lives in Minnesota where the majority of our ten thousand- ish lakes are still frozen, despite the fact it’s APRIL. Get it together already Mother Nature!) So why would anyone in their right mind want to return to dumping a bucket of cold water over his or her head?
In spite of how insane it sounds “cold therapy” is making a comeback. First it was your ultra-marathon friend doing post-run soaks in an ice bath, said to reduce inflammation and speed recovery. Then it was a shot of cold at the end of your shower to “seal your pores”, make your hair shiny and – duh – wake you up. And now it’s come to this: A journalist (who, for once, I don’t envy them their job) crouched in the fetal position at the bottom of a 60-degree pool, breathing through a tube and trying not to rattle his fillings loose as he shivers for 20 minutes. In his article for Wired magazine, entitled “Tapping the Power of Cold to Fight Fat, “ Steven Leckart plays lab rat in a way I never could in order to help former NASA scientist Ray Cronise learn about how cold effects the human metabolism and specifically in the role that brown fat plays in weight loss.
Cronise has a vested interest in the subject, and not just the monetary kind. After watching Michael Phelps talk in an interview about how he ate an astonishing 12,000 calories a day Cronise did the math and figured out that even given his build, athletic workouts and youth, he still shouldn’t not have needed that many calories a day. Unless there was another variable in the equation. Which there was: the cold. Cronise theorized that Phelps’ metabolism was supercharged because it had to work overtime to keep his body warm in the pool.
As a girl who detests swimming exactly for this reason – it can’t be overstated enough how much I hate being cold – Cronise’s theory makes sense. Ever the scientist, he decided to try it. Here’s what happened, according to Leckart:
“That fall, Cronise grew obsessed. He avoided warmth altogether: He took cool showers, wore light clothing, slept without sheets, and took 3-mile “shiver walks” in 30-degree weather wearing a T-shirt, shorts, gloves, and earmuffs. In six weeks he shed 27 pounds, nearly tripling his weight-loss rate without changing his calorie-restricted diet.”
It worked! And thus a diet fad was born. While I’m not aware of any controlled studies examining this technique, there’s now a large amount of anecdotal evidence from satisfied, if chilly, people. But what there is a lot of evidence on is the emerging role that “brown fat” plays in a healthy metabolism. Up until recently it was thought that only babies had this special kind of metabolically active (read: calorie torching) type of fat – commonly found in the upper back and neck. But it’s since been discovered that some adults still have a significant of brown fat – and the ones who do, have an easier time maintaining their weight or losing weight. Cronise’s theory is that by subjecting himself to uncomfortable (but not extreme) levels of cold, he was forcing his body to make more brown fat and thereby upping his metabolic burn.
In an article I wrote for Shape about healthy stuff you hate to do but should anyhow, I got to interview several super smart people about this very subject. (Ironically, when Shape published the piece, they cut out the entire section on cold showers so… yeah, now you get it here!) Dr. Pamela Brar , MD, says that there is some research to back up Cronise in this area. ”According to a 2008 study entitled “Human Skeletal Muscle Mitochondrial Uncoupling Is Associated with Cold Induced Adaptive Thermogenesis” human brown fat can provide better calorie burning when exposed to very cold temperatures,” she explains. “And a shock of cold water can stimulate the production of this elusive brown fat in adult humans, a phenomenon previously only though to occur in babies and animals.”
Of course, if he’s correct – and it seems as if he might be – that leads to an even more uncomfortable corrollary: Do you have to keep up all the shivery stuff to maintain the brown fat and ergo your weight? Because a lifetime of cold showers and “shiver walks” sounds about as fun as being a North Korean diplomat right now.
Here’s where I confess: I hate being cold more than I hate almost anything. I don’t know if it’s my highly sensitive nature or if I’m just a pansy but I tolerate cold very badly. I’m chronically cranking up the heat in the car to the point where my kids are stripping down to their undies (although let’s be honest, kids don’t need much incentive to strip!) just so they don’t sweat to death. At home, I’ll routinely get dressed in a normal outfit (jeans, top, sweater) and then pull on plush pajama pants and an oversized sweatshirt on over the top. (And hopefully I remember to shed the outer layer before I run to the store or answer the door!)
Right now, ready for bed, I’m wearing long johns, leggings, a fitted t-shirt, a loose t-shirt, fuzzy knee-high socks and my husband’s hooded sweatshirt that goes to my knees. And I’ll sleep in all of it all night long… under a thick down comforter. Since I know someone will ask, my thyroid’s been tested and it is well within normal limits and my body fat percentage is higher than it’s been in years so now I’m wondering if I’ve “warmed away” all my awesome brown fat? Or maybe I’m just messed up. Either way though, this cold experiment is one I don’t think I could ever do. I’d take any other weight loss method – even a liquid diet- over this one if I needed to lose weight!
What do you think of the new cold therapy – have you ever taken a cold bath or shower (on purpose)? How well do you tolerate cold? And is Cronise’s weight-loss method crazy or crazy cool? Would you try it?