Do You Burn More Calories Running In The Cold?

Running in winter is healthy. It helps reduce stress, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. It can help you feel generally happier and it can help you improve self-esteem. And regardless if it is cold or hot outside, you burn calories when running, and your body works hard to maintain right body temperature.

The question is, can you burn more calories when running in the cold? If so, should you start running more often outside, in the cold, than inside on a treadmill?

One fact is for sure. When running, we can supercharge the metabolism. Unfortunately, when it comes to burning extra calories when running in the cold, the answer is, only in particular situations.

Therefore, for all those who are trying to shed some extra weight during the cold winter days, the short answer to this question is no, you will not double up the process of burning extra calories. You will, however, naturally burn calories, but not significantly. 

Here is why.

Natural Body Mechanisms that Defend You Against The Cold

During a run, in both scenarios (cold weather vs. warm), your muscles, just like an engine will start producing heat to warm up the body, while burning calories in the process. In summer due to the external heat, it is cooling your body and in winter, due to a bit lower temperatures, it makes sure it produces enough heat to keep your body a bit warmer. So, where does the myth ‘running in the cold burns more calories’ came from you might ask? Mainly from recent scientific research studies.

Now, humans have three mechanisms to defend against cold:

  • Blood flow to the skin decreases, which increases the body’s ability to maintain the temperature in the core.
  • Thermogenesis, the chemical reactions are being activated, but there is no result in muscle contraction.
  • Shivering, it occurs when muscles contract involuntary, which can produce heat to defend and maintain the body core temperature.

Thus, in one study it was suggested that “shivering and bouts of moderate exercise are equally capable of stimulating the conversion of energy-storing ‘white fat’ into energy-burning ‘brown fat.” (1), (2)

What is Shivering?

Have you ever felt extra super cold? Like so cold that your entire body starts to make a bit uncontrollably as a result of being cold? Shivering is like an exercise, it triggers muscles to secrete a hormone called irisin that stimulates energy used in brown fat cells. Once produced, it travels through the blood and turns white fat cells into brown ones.

What is The Difference Between ‘White Fat’ and ‘Brown Fat’

You see, we have white fat cells, brown fat cells and some shades in between.

  • White fat is the common extra body fat. That unwanted uneven bulging fat found around hips, thighs, bellies. This white fat, stores energy from the food we eat.
  • Brown fat is less visible in adults – it is prevalent in infants. We are all born with supplies of brown fat around our necks, visible in babies. This brown fat helps to keep us warm as infants. Brown fat is present in most, if not all, adults.It is also present in hibernating mammals. It generates heat and burns calories when stimulated or to produce heat. Brown fat is metabolic tissue that burns calories. And by the way, adults with more brown fat are slimmer than those without the brown fat cells.

Endocrinologist Dr. Paul Lee, from Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, uncovered that fat and muscle communicate with each other through specific hormones thus turning fat white cells into brown fat cells to protect the body against cold.

The body can sense and signal environmental changes to different organs via nerves and hormones. When we are cold, we first activate our brown fat because it burns energy and releases heat to protect us. When that energy is insufficient, muscle contracts mechanically, or shivers, thus generating heat.

Running In The Cold – Research Findings

In a research study of 10 people (4 males) were riding a stationary bike. During the quick ride, irisin (hormone) levels increased. The same research was observed when the participants rested in water-infused thermo-blankets that were gradually cooled to 53°F. The participants’ energy expenditure increased by 48%.

“Exercising for an hour on a bicycle at a moderate level produced the same amount of irisin as shivering for 10-15 minutes.”

Shivering is the body’s quick-way to generate heat. It works to prevent your body temperature from dropping dangerously low. During both shivering and exercising there is a muscle contraction and that exercise-stimulated irisin could have evolved from shivering in the cold.” Shivering can burn around 100 calories in 15 minutes. Not bad. Right?

The cold temperature may change unwanted fat into a different kind of fat that burns calories. Being exposed to cold will increase the amount of brown fat cells that is present in the body. Some also speculate that exposing bodies to cold temperatures turns our white fat to brown.

So, now you know, you start burning extra calories when exposed to cold temperatures, that is when you start shivering. You don’t burn extra calories unless your body temperature drops and you start to shiver.

Shivering can increase resting metabolism up to five times the normal rate. But when you run, you probably do not shiver much. So, if you are about to go running in the cold and you are properly dressed for the weather, do not expect to boost your calorie expenditure because you will most likely not shiver. And as you will not shiver, you will not need to consume extra fuel.

Energy expenditure will increase only when your body starts to shiver. Once your body starts to shiver your calorie burn can double or even triple your metabolic output. Now, this does not mean that if you want a more significant increase in calorie expenditure, that you should undress and freeze outside. Please do not, or you risk for frostbite.

Here are some ideas though to help you speed up the calorie expenditure

  • If you really, badly want to burn extra calories in winter, the simplest is to not exercise. Because when you exercise, you will generate heat. You can either:
    • Be outside in the cold (but do not catch cold).
    • Wear heavy clothes, army boots… walk in the snow. You will feel warm, but you will sweat more and burn a tiny bit more calories.
    • Do some fartlek, tempo or interval training.
    • 15 minutes in the cold can be the metabolic equivalent of an hour of exercise. If you like a challenge, you do not have any health problems, how about cold-warm-cold pools sessions? They are a great way to feel the shivering all the way till your bones.
    • And the last but not least option is to activate brown fat cells by exercising in the cold. You can achieve this by skiing.

Maybe not related to burning extra calories, but please do not forget to hydrate. When running in the cold, cold air is dry and breathing in cold, dry air causes loss of water. Therefore, do not forget to drink water even though you have no desire to drink fluids as much in winter as in summer.

Summary

There are different ways to speed up metabolism or to speed up burning extra calories. For example, to boost circulation shower interchangeably with hot and super cold water. Or, to increase metabolism and circulation, take a quick swim, first in the warm pool and then in a cold pool. The same will happen when running. Your metabolism will shoot through the roof. But when it comes to burning extra calories, it won’t happen unless your body starts to shiver from cold. When running, your muscles are active, and the energy produced by muscles is mainly heat. This kind of heat is enough to the heat the body, which you will notice soon after you start running. You are not burning extra calories to keep warm because you are still releasing excess heat from the running.

There you go. To burn double more calories, you can either run, exercise more, or shiver. 🙂 Unless you shiver, run longer races and eat healthy nutritious food. As far as that extra dessert you were hoping to get after running in the cold, no extra dessert for you tonight. 🙂