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Study gives new meaning to freezing your butt off

Staff Sgt. Leah Boyd of the Minnesota Medical Detachment maintains a positive outlook on the operations as the negative degree weather continues Jan 8, 2013 on Camp Ripley.   (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Anthony Housey/Released)

Staff Sgt. Leah Boyd of the Minnesota Medical Detachment works in negative temperatures at Camp Ripley in 2013. 
(Staff Sgt. Anthony Housey/Army National Guard)

Just 15 minutes of shivering may have the same slimming effect as an hourlong workout, according to a new study published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health wanted to probe the role of hormones in regulating how humans respond to cold. Their findings suggest shivering causes the body to secrete hormones that transform ordinary white fat into mysterious brown fat.

Wait a minute – two types of fat? Turns out, there are at least two, according to the NIH experts. Sporting some love handles from too many burgers and brews lately? That’s white fat. Burn more calories than you eat, and you’ll start tapping white fat for energy.

Then there’s brown fat. It’s hard to find, much less measure, but experts say it helps maintain body temperature by burning up chemical energy to create heat.

“Unlike ordinary white fat, which primarily stores excess calories, brown fat may actually help the body burn calories when activated,” says Dr. Paul Lee, an NIH endocrinologist who led the study.

So, yeah, we’re talking about freezing your butt off, but for real.

Well, maybe.

Volunteers were exposed to cold temperatures until they shivered, and researchers collected blood samples during cooling to measure levels of different hormones.

The team then treated human white fat cells with two hormones. The treated fat cells took on the characteristics of heat-producing and energy-burning brown fat cells.

Previous studies have shown that people who are lean tend to have more brown fat than people who are overweight, so all this is a good sign they’re on to something. But, of course, more probing is needed.

“Further research will establish whether these two hormones may be targeted to help the body produce more brown fat, which may benefit metabolism and weight control,” Lee says.

Jon R. Anderson is a staff writer for OFFduty. Contact him at jona@militarytimes.com.

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