Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cold Showers stop you getting fat?

Every now and again I come across the idea of cold water dousing as a method of promoting health in various ways. There seems to be a great tradition of cold showers and cold water bathing among old school "physical culturists".

On my desk as I write is a book with a handwritten date in the front of 20 September 1899: "Strength and how to Obtain it" by Eugene Sandow, which I found years ago in a second-hand book shop. There is a chapter in the book - "The Magic Cold Bath" in which the great Sandow recommends daily cold baths - pouring cold water over the head and body and then jumping in and out of the cold water (!)

This idea persists. Art DeVany's fabulous essay on Evolutionary Fitness has this paragraph:

Stay cool and exposure your skin to fresh air and sunlight. Don’t be warm and cozy all the time. End your shower with a cool rinse over your legs. Wear as little as you can tolerate for your workouts. If you can’t stay warm working out, you aren’t going at it at a high enough pace. (Carrying a trendy water bottle slows you down too and ties up equipment for others.) Expose your skin to fresh air by wearing shorts in cold weather to hike. Bare your arms to the air and the sun, but be sensible about the amount and intensity of the exposure.

He once wrote on his blog (26 March 2007 blog post, no longer available):

"I have long practiced forms of cold exposure. The brief shock of cold encourages a stress response and increases adaptive capacity to those exposures that are unplanned and more lengthly or severe. The adaptive capacity extends to other stresses as well and, thus, may protect you against a heart attack or a life-stressing event. Warm and cozy all the time is one of the many pathways to obesity in this comfortable, physically non-demanding we live in."
More recently he wrote:

Hunter gatherers have been observed to tolerate 50 degree temperatures without clothing and without shivering. They are lean and even Eskimo carry only 11% body fat. Fat does not protect from cold and the obese are prone to chills. The answer seems to be that HGs, and EFers, have high UCP3 content in the muscles from their high activity. This produces a heat response in the muscle even without shivering. And, the episodic cold exposure elevates their BAT (brown adipose tissue) activity and mass.

Mark Sisson also had a good post on cold exposure in June last year: Cold Water Therapy in which - looking at several pieces of research - he explains and examines the

...underlying premise of cold water therapy, ... that briefly and somewhat regularly exposing the body to certain kinds of natural stresses (like cold water) can enhance health.

I came across this new bit of research today that indicates that there might be something more in this practice

Control of blood vessels a possible weapon against obesity

Mice exposed to low temperatures develop more blood vessels in their adipose tissue and metabolise body fat more quickly, according to a new study from Karolinska Institutet. Scientists now hope to learn how to control blood vessel development in humans in order to combat obesity and diabetes.

The growth of fat cells and their metabolism depend on oxygen and blood-borne nutrients. A possible way to regulate the amount of body fat – in order, for instance, to combat obesity – can therefore be to affect the development of blood vessels in the adipose tissue.

A team of researchers at Karolinska Institutet have now demonstrated the rapid development of blood vessels in the adipose tissue of mice exposed to low temperatures. This is followed in its turn by a transformation of the adipose tissue from 'white' fat to 'brown' fat, which has higher metabolic activity and which breaks down more quickly.

"This is the first time it's been shown that blood vessel growth affects the metabolic activity of adipose tissue rather than vice versa," says Professor Yihai Cao, who led the study. "If we can learn how to regulate the development of blood vessels in humans, we'd open up new therapeutic avenues for obesity and metabolic diseases like diabetes."

Brown fat releases heat when it breaks down, and is mainly found in hibernating animals. In humans, it is found in newborn babies, but scientists believe by controlling blood vessel development that it might be possible to transform white fat to brown fat in adults as well..

If this is applicable to humans there is one more argument for the modern lifestyle making us fat - central heating....


Anonymous said...

that's pretty interesting ...

I've never really thought about using the cold as a training device before.

thanks for the post

Chris said...

Hi Kira

Steve Maxwell has a few things about dousing on his site.

Anonymous said...

I like to follow the majority of my workouts (time permitting) with a contrast steam bath/cold shower. I find that it's relaxing and helps speed post-workout recovery.

Anonymous said...

I was reading through Tim Ferriss' site who found research from Stanford that mentioned cold water baths can also help with sleep.

The link can be found here:

Your Digital Trainer,


Chris said...

Thanks Jeremiah

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SteveRN said...

Jack Kruse has been talking about this in his recent posts. Kinda interesting, and makes a lot of sense. If you can translate his communication style well enough to get to his point. It can take some work at times!

AlexB said...

Check out my cold water training for tough mudder! I ran it in November this year, and it was very very cold.