People Are Paying to Work Out in Cold Temperatures
Could working out in cold weather actually be good for you?
RossHelen / Getty
When I got an email about this new fitness studio that hosts workouts in cold temperatures, I actually laughed out loud. Not today, cold-weather Satan. Yes, I believe holy books are wrong and that hell is actually really, really cold. I’ve never been skiing, crisp autumn leaves give me anxiety, and I have a space heater at my desk. I hate anything even vaguely winter-y.
I went to the class anyway because a) it was free for press b) I am your faithful wellness editor, and c) I felt deeply compelled to debunk these malicious theories about the benefits of working out in colder temperatures. I am, after all, a child of hot yoga and an avid fan of jogging on balmy summer evenings in nothing but a sports bra and some stretchy shorts my mother would disapprove of.
The $34 classes (hello again, New York fitness world) at Brrrn Studio in Manhattan are generally a mix of yoga, light weight work, low-impact core, and cardio. There are two class options for temperatures: 45 and 60 degrees. Because I’m a sensible masochist, I chose the 60. I walked into the class dressed like it was an arctic trek, but began to shed layers quickly (the class is designed to keep you sweating). Was this really better for me? The site claimed that the body “can burn more calories in cooler temperatures” and that “the body may take longer to fatigue in colder temperatures.”
Ten minutes into the class, my joints feel lubed up after a little cardio which wasn’t dance at all but appeared so on my end, as the instructor’s playlist was Drake-fully curated. We moved into some burpees, and then yoga sets with light barbells to up the ante. The floor in the studios are functionally grippy, which is useful when you’re trying to plank, row, balance in a warrior 3, and not look slapstick while you’re doing it. And then more core work. And then more core work after that. Aside from violating your wallet, New York fitness classes are also notorious for making you want to die a little, halfway through (a measurement of grit, perhaps?). By this time, I’d definitely forgotten it was cold-ish. Beads of sweat felt cool against my skin and it was weirdly refreshing.
Here’s the first thing to note: While this trendy workout feeds off the kind of awe of a Wim Hof-like “run naked in the snow” jam, it’s not that. (For those who don’t know, Hof is the guy who led a movement based in the belief that working out in extreme cold has the most benefits). When I mentioned Hof to one of the studio’s owners, Johnny Adamic, he told me that the intention of the workout at Brrrn is indeed inspired by some of those concepts but are watered down to cater to regular people who are looking to reap the benefits of working out in colder temps.
So what are the actual advantages? I dug into some of Brrrn’s claims and got a little bit of science—besides what they cite on their site—to back them up. One study indicated that regular exposure to mild cold may provide a “sustainable alternative strategy of increasing energy,” aka, mildly jumpstarting your metabolism, ideally. The experts I spoke to both hedged, though, since this and a lot of other research is about simply being exposed to cold, rather than working out in it.
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“Whether you’re actually going to lose more calories—it’s debatable,” says Rondel King, a sports physiologist at NYU Langone Health. “It depends on the population. Depending on where you grew up and what your cold tolerance is, everyone’s a little bit different.” He adds that the 60-degree class I took is kind of great since I had the opportunity to sweat without losing too much water. If you do lose a lot of fluids, he tells me, your performance drops or you lose a lot of electrolytes (which are vital to normal body function).
Like me, he’s more averse to the 45-degree option (though we concede, it’s not dangerously frigid) because the colder it gets, the harder it is for your core temperature to rise. “When the human body is exposed to the cold the majority of your blood is moved away from your extremities and pools around your midsection,” King tells me. “It’s a mechanism your body uses to take blood away from the extremities and channel it toward where your organs are because that’s most important to keep you alive.” (This is why we get frostbite.) So essentially, if your core temp doesn’t rise, your biological processes will not perform as well. “That’s a problem, for example, if you’re going to be doing weightlifting and the central nervous system is not warm enough. You may experience suboptimal muscle contractions because of poor circulation and not being warm enough.”
Really, working out in either extreme temperature—hot or cold—is tough on your body, King adds, but nature and nurture both play a role in how far you as an individual can push yourself. I tell him that my Indian blood completely rejects any type of cold environment. (Okay, not totally based in science, but it was a more PC way of expressing my first thought when I heard about the concept of cold-weather workouts: “This is some real white-people stuff.”)
King says there’s some validity to the idea that some people are more naturally comfortable in lower temperatures. “We all have a certain tolerance for cold based on where we grew up and what we’re used to,” he says. “The last world cup was in Brazil and you had Brazilians who were used to that humidity and heat. They’re used to training in more of a dehydrated state and some Europeans who came to play were not used that climate. That might have provided an advantage to the team from the tropical area because they’re more adapted to that environment.”
Adamic and his team at Brrrn—while all touting the projected scientific benefits of low-temp gains—recognize that working up a sweat in a chilly atmosphere can also be hella energizing for a lot of people, motivating them to want to work harder. “A proper warm-up and then maintaining an acceptable body temp [by dressing accordingly] can be invigorating,” says Nicholas Sgaglione, chair of the department of orthopedic surgery at Zucker Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. He stresses the warm-up part since you can really hurt yourself if your mobility is compromised. In lower temps, he tells me, the risk of injury to muscle tendons that aren’t properly stretched can increase significantly.
That was exactly my thought process when I read that I’d be doing yoga in this class. Being in a warmer temp can increase your mobility, which makes it easier—at least for me—to twist into a pretzel. But it turns out the yoga element at Brrrn seemed to be more about strength training than flexibility; 60 degrees is probably not cold enough to cause a yoga injury even if you aren’t warmed up; and we did warm up sufficiently. The owners of this place have been in the fitness field in some capacity for a while (Adamic and another co-founder, Jimmy Martin, were certified trainers for several years before this studio came to fruition) so they covered their asses well. In other words, this was not an injury-inducing rerun of me taking that 6-week stiletto kickboxing course in 2013.
The rest of the 45-minute class went swimmingly, mostly because the warm-up involved more aerobics than stretching, so I never got a chance to actually feel cold. And I’ll admit that the chilly air was welcoming during my brief moments of rest between weights sets. I don’t want to ruin the surprisingly pleasant taste this workout left in my mouth, so I will not be attending the 45-degree class. You’re on your own for that one.
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