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Medical Files

Exercising in chilly temperatures can burn belly and thigh fat faster

/ 05:00 AM August 22, 2017

Chillax! This may be the new battle cry to lose unwanted flab.

If you want to lose belly fat by exercising, merely sweating it out won’t be good enough. So, doing it in room or usual gym temperature may be fair, but not optimal.

Turning the aircon thermostat to around 16°C may up your chances of losing flab.


I learned this from Dr. Augusto Litonjua, acknowledged as the Father of Endocrinology in the Philippines, one of its pioneers in the early 1960s.

I always look forward to any scientific session we’re both invited to, because I know there will be something new to learn from him on various endocrine (hormonal) problems like diabetes, obesity and thyroid diseases.

Dr. Litonjua was the keynote speaker in the day-long public education program last week organized by Diabetease magazine at Starmall in Alabang. The other speakers were Dr. Pepito de la Peña, president of the Philippine Society of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism; and Dr. Joy Fontanilla, editor in chief of Diabetease magazine.


Diabetease is a bimonthly magazine providing diabetics and those at risk of developing diabetes with updated information to help control their blood sugar and prevent complications like blindness, leg amputation, nerve problems, and heart and brain diseases.

Now, why does exercising in almost freezing temperature burn more fat? Dr. Litonjua explains that we have several types of fats, notable of which is the white fat, or the bad fat which piles up with the unhealthy stuff we eat, and the brown fat, or the good fat, which serves as the body’s innate fireplace to keep us warm.

Another important function of brown fat is that it also burns white fat. In cold temperatures, the brown fat helps convert white fat in the thighs and belly to beige fat, which burns calories to generate heat to keep the body warm.

So, suiting up with thick clothing during exercise may defeat the purpose. Wearing sleeveless undershirts and boxer shorts and embracing the chill may be a better option. Chillax!

A little shivering initially is fine. When one feels cold, the brain senses that promptly and automatically commands the muscles to start contracting to generate heat. That causes the shivering.


And so long as one starts exercising, there’s no risk of catching a cold because of the chill. The chill dissipates once one starts generating heat.

Those Americans or Europeans you see jogging in the height of winter? I thought they were crazy; now I realize they were doing it the more scientific, healthier way.

Brown fat

Studies have shown that staying in a really cold room for several hours a day, or better yet, exercising in it will promote the activation and growth of the brown fat in obese and even lean individuals.

It has been shown, though, that obese individuals with body mass indices (BMI) of more than 30 have an impaired mechanism of converting white fat to beige fat, compared to lean individuals.

So, if you’re obese, you have to exercise more to activate this fat conversion effectively.

Progressively increasing the time one stays in a cold room can also help the body acclimatize to low temperatures and activate or “retrain” brown fat.

In a study published in the International Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, researchers investigated whether human adults had the ability to activate brown fat and transform some white fat deposits into beige fat after being exposed to cold temperature.

“Browning fat tissue would be an excellent defense against obesity. It would result in the body burning extra calories rather than converting them into additional fat tissue,” said professor Philip Kern, M.D., one of the study authors from the University of Kentucky School of Medicine in the United States.

The researchers analyzed belly fat tissue samples from 55 people, evaluating if the tissue samples taken during winter showed more evidence of browning activity than those taken during summer.

They also took fat samples from the thighs of 16 people after they held an ice pack on the skin for 30 minutes. To identify the fat, they analyzed for specific genetic markers found in brown or beige fat.

Their analysis showed that belly and thigh fat, taken during winter or after 30 minutes of ice pack exposure, had a higher level of identifying genetic markers for beige fat, compared to fat tissues taken in summer.

They also analyzed if there was a difference in responses among lean and obese people, and their analysis showed that the seasonal effect of fat browning was blunted in obese people with a BMI of more than 30.

The researchers explained that there’s a certain degree of “inflammation” seen in obese people which can hinder the conversion of white to beige fat.

The development of atherosclerosis, or the progressive narrowing of the arteries in the body, is also attributed to this insidious but continuous and progressive inflammation.

The next time you plan your exercise regimen, remember —chillax!

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