- Many offices have very cold air conditioning during the summer.
- INSIDER asked a dietitian if freezing all day will help burn extra calories.
- Research suggests that you do burn more calories when you’re in a chilly environment.
- But the effect is pretty small, and not likely to cause actual weight loss or body transformation.
The unnecessarily cold office is a well-described phenomenon. Refinery29 once gave tips on how to wear layers for a frigid workplace. In summer 2015, a writer for the Washington Post conducted a full-scale investigation into why so many offices are so cold, particularly for female workers.Here at INSIDER, we too have experienced an indoor arctic chill on hot summer days. We have taken breaks from typing to warm up numb fingers. We have brought blankets into the office to wrap around our shoulders. We have dashed out to H&M to pick up sweaters in the moments when we felt we could not bear the unrelenting cold for one more moment.
And we wondered: If we must be condemned to this simulated tundra, is it possible that we were at least burning some extra calories by trying to stay warm? I reached out to registered dietitian Georgie Fear to get an expert’s take.
The short answer is that we probably are burning slightly more calories when we’re cold at work. But the overall effect is small.
Let’s start with the basics: Calories are a unit of measurement that tell us how much energy is stored inside food. When it gets cold outside, Fear explained, your body starts using some of that energy to keep your body temperature high enough. So the short answer is yes — you do use up calories by staying warm in a cold environment.
But how many extra calories are you burning?
To answer that question, Fear pointed to a study done by Dutch researchers back in 2002. They found that lowering a room’s temperature from 71.6ºF to 60.8ºF increased the participants’ 24-hour energy expenditure— the number of calories they burned in a day — by 4 to 6%. (Scientists who did similar studies in 2010 and 2013 got very similar results.)
That means, if you burn 2,000 calories on a typical day at a comfortable temperature, the chillier environment would spur your body to burn an additional 80-120 calories. That’s not nothing.
But (of course) there are a few caveats.
First, in order to maintain that calorie-burning benefit, you’d have to swear off additional layers like blankets or sweatshirts, Fear said. Instead you’d have to wear the same clothes you’d choose for a normal, comfortable temperature. And that’s just unpleasant.
Second, that increase of 80-120 calories is relative to 24-hour energy expenditure — and we don’t know anyone who spends 24 hours in the office. If you’re spending fewer hours in the cold, the total number of extra calories burned will be smaller, too.
Third, Fear told INSIDER that cold temperatures can increase appetite in some cases.
“[Being cold is] not a route to weight loss because you’re probably going to get hungrier,” she said. And it is all too easy to erase an extra burn of 80-120 calories. All it would take is a decently large banana or a quarter cup of almonds.
Finally, your body may not react the same way to the nine male participants in that 2002 study.
“There’s lots of individual variation in metabolic rate,” Fear said. Your rate of calorie burn varies depending on age, sex, activity level, current weight, and your personal cocktail of hormones, too.
The bottom line: Yes, your body does burn more calories when you’re colder. But unless the summertime office chill drives you to start jogging laps around the conference room, you’re probably not going to overhaul your body just by being slightly cold.