Winter cold is good for your body, Ottawa researcher explains

We often curse the cold of winter, but that cold is actually good for you as researchers at the University of Ottawa and the University of Sherbrooke have found by studying the effects of extended cold temperatures on the body.

Researchers use cooling suit to examine how cold temperatures affect body

After a surprisingly mild beginning to winter, we bundled up after a blast of Arctic air left much of the eastern part of North America shivering early in the first full week of January. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty)

We often curse winter's chill, but that cold can actually be good for you, according to researchers at the University of Ottawa and the University of Sherbrooke who are studying the effects of extended cold temperatures on the body.

Denis Blondin, a post-doctoral fellow in thermal physiology at the University of Ottawa, told Robyn Bresnahan, host of CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning, that the study uses a cooling suit to test this hypothesis.

The suit is kept at 18 C thanks to circulating cold water — which feels like wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the fall. This suit allows researchers to examine the effects of cold on the body, Blondin said Wednesday.

Researchers have found two key therapeutic benefits from being exposed to cold temperatures.

1. We expend more energy

This might not be surprising.

The average person expends about 100 calories per hour, but the cold forces us to expend up to 500 calories per hour, even when sitting.

Movement is also more laboured during the winter, which leads to burning more calories.

2. We use what's called "brown fat"

People generally think fat stores energy to keep warm. But Blondin said adults can produce "brown fat" that actually burns energy like a furnace.

All mammals have it, but those in cold climates burn more of it.

"Shivering is not an effective way of staying warm. It costs a lot of energy," Blondin explained.

Brown fat produces heat, so it's more effective. It also helps fight chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes where there is an over-supply of fat and glucose.

If someone is exposed to cold, it increases the demand for those fuels and takes them out of circulation, Blondin said.

He also shared a tip for those cursing the cold weather: "Embrace it."

"We know by the end of the winter we get comfortable with it, we're OK with it and we tolerate the cold a lot better. I think we just have to get into that frame of mind sooner," Blondin said.