How to burn calories by doing nothing

This week, arctic weather hit Britain hard.

Hopefully it wasn’t too disruptive where you are.

I was too far south for snow to settle, so I couldn’t rediscover my childhood joys of throwing snowballs and building snowmen.


It was ME who looked like a snowman.

I was in my study at the back of our house, standing at my desk (keen readers will recall that I mostly now STAND to write in order to avoid backpain!)

And, as well as my usual clothes, I was wearing the following:

  • A woolly hat
  • A scarf
  • Fingerless gloves.

All I needed was a carrot implanted in my face and you could have called me ‘Frosty’.

My office just wouldn’t warm up.

One of the radiators needs bleeding, so it was weakly emanating the temperature of a medium-sized dog.

And I swear there was a proper wind blowing through a tiny crack which must have appeared recently in the window ledge.

It got me thinking…

Life must have been very different in the days before central heating.

In fact, you might be one of those readers who is old and WISE enough to remember those days yourself…

Most rooms were without a fireplace, and the heat from the fire was often insufficient to warm the living room, never mind the whole house.

Houses were not as well-insulated. Windows and doors let in drafts, and heavy curtains were designed to keep the cold out.

You needed hot water bottles to take the chill off the bedclothes…

Nightcaps and bed socks were common, and people wore multiple layers indoors to stay warm during the day.

To keep the blood pumping, the daily routine often involved tasks like chopping wood for the fire, clearing ashes, and ensuring the fire was kept going.

This was just how things were…

And people got used to it.

Now, I’m not going to look at the past through nostalgic, rose-tinted spectacles.

People suffer and DIE from the cold. Particularly the elderly and vulnerable.

So central heating and insulation have certainly saved lives and allowed many people to live longer, more tolerable existences.


There were some benefits to being colder, more often, that are worth thinking about.

Because exposing ourselves to a bit of cold can have a surprisingly positive effects on our bodies.

How to burn calories by being cold

There is something in our bodies known as ‘brown fat’, or technically, brown adipose tissue.

This isn’t your regular fat…

Brown fat is like a furnace that burns calories to generate heat.

When you shiver, this brown fat kicks into high gear.

Studies have shown that cold exposure can increase this brown fat activity, which in turn can boost your metabolism. Which means you’re burning more calories just to stay warm.

A recent study at Maastricht University found that when healthy subjects were exposed to temperatures of 15-16 degrees Celsius for six hours per day, they activated their brown fat stores.

The test subjects said that in the early stages, the experience was really uncomfortable (as you might imagine!)

But after ten days they had become used to it and their tolerance had shot up.

It’s not only weight gain…

There’s also a connection between cold exposure and insulin sensitivity.

A study published in 2014 found that a short period of cold acclimation, around 10 days at 14-15°C, significantly improved insulin sensitivity by approximately 43% of people with type 2 diabetes.

This was attributed to an increase in the activity of brown fat.

Another study by the National Institutes of Health in 2014 showed some cool (pun intended!) findings.

Men who were exposed to a cooler environment (around 19°C) overnight for a month experienced an increase in brown fat activity with corresponding changes in metabolism.

This shows that not only can regular exposure to mild cold stimulate brown fat activity, but it can also alter our body’s energy balance in ways that could be beneficial sufferers of obesity and diabetes.

And there’s more…

Research has shown that after a period of cold, subjects experience an increase in energy expenditure.

Mostly likely this is due to higher ‘carbohydrate oxidation’. This refers to the metabolic process where your body breaks down sugars and starches to produce energy.

In other words, mild cold exposure can boost your body’s energy usage, helping to burn fat and lose weight.

So, while cranking up the central heating is undeniably comfy, it could also be that a bit of cold exposure does you some good (in moderation of course).

You don’t want to turn your home into a freezer, but a little shiver now and then could be surprisingly beneficial!

Anyway, I hope you aren’t suffering too much in the cold – while I moan and complain about by chilly office, I know that people have it FAR worst in Scotland and northern England.