Adaptation to exercise in the cold

Sports Med. Jan-Feb 1985;2(1):59-71. doi: 10.2165/00007256-198502010-00006.


The winter athlete has several potential tactics for sustaining body temperature in the face of severe cold. An increase in the intensity of physical activity may be counter-productive because of increased respiratory heat loss, increased air or water movement over the body surface, and a pumping of air or water beneath the clothing. Shivering can generate heat at a rate of 10 to 15 kJ/min, but it impairs skilled performance, while the resultant glycogen usage hastens the onset of fatigue and mental confusion. Non-shivering thermogenesis could arise in either brown adipose tissue or white fat. Brown adipose tissue generates heat by the action of free fatty acids in uncoupling mitochondrial electron transport, and by noradrenaline-induced membrane depolarisation and sodium pumping. The existence of brown adipose tissue in human adults is controversial, and although there are theoretical mechanisms of heat production in white fat, their contribution to the maintenance of body temperature is small. Acclimatisation to cold develops over the course of about 10 days, and in humans the primary change is an insulative, hypothermic type of response; this reflects the intermittent nature of most occupational and athletic exposures to cold. Nevertheless, with more sustained exposure to cold air or water, humans can apparently develop the humoral type of acclimatisation described in small mammals, with an increased output of noradrenaline and/or thyroxine. The associated mobilisation of free fatty acids suggests the possibility of using winter sport as a pleasant method of treating obesity. In men, a combination of moderate exercise and facial cooling induces a substantial fat loss over a 1- to 2-week period, with an associated ketonuria, proteinuria, and increase of body mass. Possible factors contributing to this fat loss include: (a) a small energy deficit; (b) the energy cost of synthesising new lean tissue; (c) energy loss through the storage and excretion of ketone bodies; (d) catecholamine-induced 'futile' metabolic cycles with increased resting metabolism; and (e) a specific reaction to cold dehydration. Current limitations for the clinical application of such treatment include uncertainty regarding optimal environmental conditions, concern over possible pathological reactions to cold, and suggestions of a less satisfactory fat mobilisation in female patients. Possible interactions between physical fitness and metabolic reactions to cold remain controversial.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Adipose Tissue, Brown / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Body Temperature Regulation
  • Body Weight
  • Catecholamines / metabolism
  • Cold Temperature* / adverse effects
  • Dogs
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypothermia / physiopathology
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Obesity / therapy
  • Physical Exertion*
  • Physical Fitness
  • Seasons
  • Shivering
  • Sports


  • Catecholamines