For decades, companies have tried to tease us with easy workouts. From those vibrating belts of the '50s to the as-seen-on-TV ab crunch chairs of today, it seems like there's always hope for toning up and burning calories, while doing the least amount of physical exertion as possible. Sure, all of the gadgets and gimmicks have turned out to be a bunch of B.S. — but don't give up on cheating the system just yet.
In case you haven't heard, cold exposure is the next surefire way to blast calories and burn fat easily — diet and exercise be damned.
I'm kidding. Sort of.
The truth is, there's a lot of solid, science-backed evidence to support the thermogenic (i.e., calorie-burning) benefits of intermittent cold exposure. Because your body is the original smart machine, it's constantly working to maintain a steady 98.6 degrees F, regardless of the ambient temperature. When it's hot outside, your blood vessels dilate, blood flow to the skin increases and you begin to sweat to help cool off. When it's cold outside, your blood vessels constrict, brown adipose tissue activates to generate heat and muscles contract (sometimes in an involuntary manner through shivering) to try to maintain core temperature.
Hanging out in the hot or cold can increase thermogenesis, but cold environments are by far the greater calorie-burning environment. Cold showers, ice baths and cold weather walks are all methods by which cold exposure advocates are suggesting the average person take advantage of the potential weight loss benefits of cold. In fact, self-help guru Tim Ferriss advocates for cold exposure in his book, The 4-Hour Body. But, I'd like to take a minute to say:
Oh, hell no.
I'm sorry — and I'm well aware there are people who will disagree with me — but being cold is the worst. There is no way I'm about to voluntarily wear shorts outside in 30-degree weather or hop into a tub filled with ice water just to burn a few more calories. Heck, I won't even lower my thermostat below 78 degrees. I'd much rather spend another two hours sweating it out at the gym.
But for those of you who aren't opposed to a little chill to stimulate calorie burn, there's a new type of product on the market built especially for you: a cold vest. These vests are designed with ice packs in the liner (generally on the upper back and shoulders) so you can simply take the vest out of the freezer, slip it on over a T-shirt and wear it for 45 minutes in the morning and again in the evening to enhance daily thermogenesis from cold exposure.
Cold Shoulder, one of the products on the market, claims that with their original vest users could burn up to 500 calories a day when using it as directed — leading to an extra pound of fat loss each week. Now, with their vest's latest update to a CryoMax gel ice pack that maintains cold longer, this "mild" cold exposure (which founder Dr. Wayne Hayes says is a "cold that makes you feel chilly but not enough to induce significant shivering") could burn even more calories — potentially double — to further aid in weight loss efforts.
And I have to say, the anecdotal evidence is compelling. After interviewing three Cold Shoulder users, all of whom achieved their desired weight loss and saw their weight loss speed after using the vest, it made me think, "Well, there could be something to this."
But the exercise physiologist in me kept sounding alarm bells: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
And actually, once you start carefully reading the Cold Shoulder's copy, the evidence jumps right off the page, "There is no magic pill for weight loss, and The Cold Shoulder is no exception to that rule. The cold, hard truth is that the foundation of weight control is your diet." The copy goes on to say, "If you are already eating well and getting moderate exercise and want to accelerate your calorie-burning efforts by burning excess calories while at rest, there’s no simpler, easier, or more time-efficient way than wearing our vest."
Ding! Ding! Ding!
That's the part I want everyone to read, and then read again. The Cold Shoulder vest (or any cold exposure) won't automatically lead to "easy" weight loss, especially if you're not watching your eating habits. Here's why:
Remember how the body is pretty amazing at maintaining homeostasis? This is true of calorie balance, too. Your body knows when it has burned more calories, whether through cold exposure or exercise, and in response, hormones are released or suppressed to stimulate hunger or fullness to incite you to replace those calories.
The Cold Shoulder site itself refers to the incredible increase in calorie burn experienced by world-class swimmers who spend hours each day in a cold water environment much cooler than the body's natural core temperature. What they fail to mention is that swimmers also consume many more calories than other world-class athletes to make up for the calorie loss.
Left to your own devices, the more calories you burn, the more calories you'll consume.
When I posed my question to the Cold Shoulder users, across the board, they all admitted that, yes, they were following a diet (some of them even used the term "strict diet") while using the vest. This made logical sense to me. If you're following a set diet or healthy eating plan and you maintain that same plan while adding cold-induced thermogenesis to your daily routine, increased weight loss should take place.
At the end of the day, the evidence indicates that mild cold exposure can, in fact, enhance calorie burn and weight loss efforts... but only if you're simultaneously following a healthy, calorie-controlled eating plan.
P.S. As an exercise physiologist, I'd like to add, for the love of God (and your own health), please follow an exercise plan, too.
Originally published November 2015. Updated October 2017.