If you go back to the office, the colder temperature could cause you to gain weight
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
By Kenneth McLeod , Binghamton University, State University of New York
With millions of people vaccinated against COVID-19, many workers who have worked from home in the last year will return to the office in 2021. Adjusting to new routines is a challenge that can affect our health and fitness . We have been more sedentary or more active, we have gained weight or we have lost kilos.
As part of my job as a biomedical engineer , I study how physical factors influence human metabolism . This includes height and weight, gravity - and air temperature. My research colleagues and I have found that living or working in a cold environment for long periods of time can lower core body temperature. That lowers the metabolic rate - how quickly we burn calories - and often leads to weight gain .
Maintain core body temperature
Humans are homeotherms - that is, we maintain a relatively constant body temperature. Specifically, we maintain our body temperature in the range of 36.1˚C to 38.3˚C even in cold environments. Three different types of metabolic activity keep our bodies warm.
The first is the basal metabolic rate . About two-thirds of the calories we burn each day fuel basic bodily functions, all of which generate heat: respiration, blood circulation, cell growth, brain function, and the digestion of food. Any type of physical movement also generates heat through chemical reactions that cause muscles to contract.
A third process of heat generation takes place in a specialized tissue called " brown fat ." It is an evolutionary adaptation that prevented us from freezing during the ice ages. It kicks in when our core temperature drops to very low levels, but most people lose their brown fat as they age .
By increasing body temperature, our metabolic rate increases and we burn more calories. This generates more heat and raises our body temperature even more, creating a positive feedback process that often keeps our body temperature in the healthy range.
But this process is very sensitive to temperature. For every one degree drop in body temperature, our metabolic rate can decrease by more than 7% . This means that the resting metabolic rate of a person with a body temperature of 38.3˚ (the upper end of normal) is up to 30% higher than if their temperature were 36.1˚ (the lower end). A four degree increase in body temperature can burn more calories throughout the day than the average person burns as a result of all their daily physical activity.
Body temperature versus physical exercise
So changing the physical environment can substantially alter the way the body works - and affect both health and fitness. If you're gaining weight and you're not sure why, check the thermostat where you live or work.
Most offices tend to stay around 21˚C. This is why many of your co-workers complain of being cold, wear sweaters or jackets, or use a heater. This tends to be too cold for most women - and many men - who sit at a desk all day. But more than uncomfortable, it is not healthy.
The "right" room temperature is one you feel comfortable in: not too hot, not too cold. Generally, the temperature is between 22.2˚C and 27.2˚C with moderate humidity, but it can range between 18.3˚C and 29.4˚C .
Working in a cold office slows down your metabolism. In addition to making it difficult to control your weight, slow metabolism is linked to a decreased immune response , heart damage, and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes .
If you can't control the thermostat, you still have a few options besides wearing a coat all day. New technologies include a wearable personal device that changes the perception of heat and cold ; a passive exercise device that increases metabolic rate by increasing cardiac output (I have a stake in Sonostics, the company that makes this device); and a "smart" version of the traditional heater . Either way, do your best to stay comfortably warm in your future workplace.
This article was translated by Univision .