Can you freeze your way to rapid weight loss?

Cristen Conger

Is shivering is the key to rapid weight loss?
Is shivering is the key to rapid weight loss?
© Jerome Levitch/Corbis

In 1903, fitness nut Bernarr Macfadden started the Coney Island Polar Bear Club for like-minded cold water swimming enthusiasts. Macfadden, millionaire author of the Encyclopedia of Physical Culture whose life motto was "weakness is a crime -- don't be a criminal!," counted bone-chilling swims as part of his multifaceted fitness regimen alongside periodic fasting, milk-drinking and long-distance walking. Taking a plunge in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Coney Island jumpstarted the metabolism, Macfadden believed, and today, Polar Bear Club members still gather every Sunday from November 1 to May 1, following in Macfadden's breaststrokes, and though the freezing swims are more motivated for social and charitable reasons these days, Macfadden's notion of it stimulating weight loss has caught on among dieters and scientists alike.

Over at Wired, Steven Leckart submitted himself to cold water torture at the hands of Ray Cronise, NASA materials engineer-turned-accidental dieting guru who shivered his way to losing 27 pounds. (You can watch his 2010 TEDMED Talk on it here). Leckart describes how Cronise "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 2010, news of his cold-exposure weight loss system spread to popular media outlets, and a bona fide fitness trend was born.

"In environments as mild as 60 degrees, some of these people saw metabolism rates boost by as much as 20 percent," Cronis told ABC News.

The funny thing about cold temperatures and human metabolism is that scientists haven't fully parsed out the relationship between the two. It's clear that below-freezing weather and attendant shivering can amp the body's energy-burning system to ward off hypothermia, "anywhere from 8 to 80 percent," Leckart reports. Fitness sources suggest cranking up that metabolic potential with cold showers, icy foot baths and winter outdoor exercise. But the problem for folks hoping to freeze their way to a more slender "swimsuit season" is that there isn't a neat algorithm for weight loss, since body composition, gender, age and diet and can influence the amount of additional fat and calories eliminated by cold temperature exposure. And Cronise himself recognizes that there are a number of blank gaps to fill to this thermal dieting formula, referring to ice baths and other extreme methods as "stupid crazy." Which is why he's busy developing a wearable device to effectively translate the cold's metabolism-boosting potential into a safe, reliable weight loss tool.

Scientists have also honed in on cold exposure weight loss as a possible weapon against rising obesity rates. But researchers aren't interested in frigid workout prescriptions or fat-burning machines. Instead, they're taking a look at the problem itself: fat. Studies on cold exposure and weight loss have found that the color of one's fat may, in fact, determine how adept his or her body is at burning up excess energy that otherwise accumulates on love handles and elsewhere.

And more on that in my next blog post...