Small Changes in Indoor Temperatures Could Yield Significant Health Benefits

New research suggests that slight temperature shifts could increase a person's metabolism, helping to reduce obesity, treat diabetes, and improve cardiovascular health

Everyone knows that sitting at a desk all day is bad for your health.

But turning the thermostat up and down a bit could help office workers lessen some of the harmful effects of their sedentary workdays, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal Building Research & Information.

"It has previously been assumed that stable fixed indoor temperatures would satisfy comfort and health in most people,” said Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, a Maastricht University professor of ecological energetics and health who was lead author of the study. “However, this research indicates that mild cold and variable temperatures may have a positive effect on our health and at the same time are acceptable or even may create pleasure."

The professor and his team discovered that temperatures slightly colder and warmer than 70 degrees — the approximate temperature in most office buildings — could increase people’s metabolism. That in turn could help obese folks lose weight, benefit diabetics coping with their disease, and improve cardiovascular health.

“Even small changes in temperatures can affect our physiology significantly without shivering, without too much sweating and things like that,” said van Marken Lichtenbelt, who was quick to add that diet and exercise were still undoubtedly the best ways to get fit.

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Differences in body types and other factors would determine how much weight desk jockeys might lose if they’re in colder or hotter temperatures, the study said. But the researchers found that humans at rest could devote more than a 30 percent of their metabolic activity to heating up or cooling down over the course of the day as their environments changed — a potential workout for some.

The researchers also found that the sufferers of Type 2 diabetes improved their sensitivity to insulin by 40 percent after exposure to intermittent cold for 10 days, levels similar to diabetic drugs. Insulin breaks down glucose in the blood. Diabetics are resistant to insulin and don’t process sugar like healthy people.

The director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University, Alan Hedge, wondered whether the findings had practical applications.

“The potential downside to something like this is, what’s a person’s first reaction to feeling cold? Usually their first reaction is trying to find warmer clothing,” said Hedge, who has conducted studies that found that office workers perform more computer work in warmer temperatures. “We go into cold buildings, and we see people wearing gloves, wooly leggings, and blankets.”

But van Marken Lichtenbelt stressed that the temperatures didn’t need to be extreme. They just needed to change occasionally to force the body to work ever-so-slightly more.

“If you put people in a lower temperature, they might feel uncomfortable,” he said. “If you put them in a variable environment — if you are in a cooler environment but you feel it is getting warmer again — then you can accept it.”

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The research also suggested that new technology might help deskbound employees tailor their temperatures to suit their needs and health goals rather than tolerate one-size-fits-all temperatures in their workplaces.

“We can create our own microclimates to a larger extent than what’s available in most buildings now,” he said. “You will get personal desk temperature regulators and things like that.”

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