Adjusting your thermostat a few degrees in both directions (warmer and colder) can boost your metabolism and potentially help fight obesity and diabetes, according to a new study analysis in Building Research & Information. Most of us spend our days inside air conditioned spaces at a set 70 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, so exposing yourself to lows (64 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit) and highs (around 90 degrees Fahrenheit) can help activate your nervous system to regulate your core body temperature better, the research says.
Exposure to cold has long been proven to increase your caloric burn. This has to do, in part, a special type of tissue called brown fat, says Matt Robinson, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise physiology and biology at Oregon State University. Brown fat has unusually dense mitochondria with high amounts of something called uncoupling proteins (UCPs). UCPs actually make mitochondria less efficient, so they need more fuel to produce the same amount of energy (like a car that gets lower gas mileage). Most types of tissue burn fat and carbs via contractions and therefore aren’t able to work in the cold, but brown fat oxidizes its fuels, a process which can continue at lower temperatures. And with higher fuel oxidation, your metabolism increases, Robinson explains.
But it’s really exposure to both ends of the temperature spectrum that helps deliver that extra boost, according to the research. “Our bodies are designed to maintain a constant state of equilibrium, known as homeostasis,” explains Paul Arciero, Ph.D., director of the Human Nutrition & Metabolism Laboratory at Skidmore College in New York. Disrupting this state by alternating between higher or lower temperatures means your metabolism activates to cool you down or stay warm. And while the study looked at obese and diabetic populations, Arciero says temperature fluctuations can help fit folks burn more calories, too.
We become acclimatized and desensitized to constant exposure to the same temperature: Once your body reaches homeostasis, it doesn’t need to work as hard to keep you there. Try and expose yourself to varying temperatures throughout the day. If your office is frigid, take your lunch break outside and ride home with the heat on for a bit. During the winter, hang outside in the chill temps for a bit. And keep in mind, cold is relative; differences in muscle mass, circulation, and general tolerance all come into play for how one person perceives 90 degrees compared to another, Robinson adds. Aim for cold temps that don’t make you shiver and warm ones that don’t make you sweat to avoid stifling your metabolism.