Heated fitness studios from hot yoga to hot pilates have become all the rage in the fitness world. But could there be a more beneficial way to break a sweat without all the extra heat? Don’t get me wrong, I love a variety of fitness classes, but certain styles seem to have taken it overboard with the heating concept. Coincidentally, a recent study conducted by the Joslin Diabetes Center discovered that our bodies release fat-controlling hormones known as lipokines during exercise, and it turns out, we also release them when we’re exposed to the cold.
The findings published in Cell Metabolism were done as a means to understand how we burn energy to improve treatment towards obesity. The study followed up on research that looked at lipokines released from brown adipose tissue (a.k.a. brown fat, the energy burning fat you want more of to stay lean), which keeps us warm when we’re shivering in the cold. Scientists were amazed to discover that the lipokines generated in the cold were similar to those that are released during exercise. It turns out the common denominator may be that brown fat controls some of the metabolic effects of exercise and the lipokines signal the body to use more fatty acids as fuel. Not to mention, scientists saw an increase in lipokines when exercise was factored in. In other words, the more you exercise, the more brown fat your body will have.
So if science is telling us that the cold may be a good way to activate our fat-burning hormones, why aren’t there more fitness classes catering to this? I thought this didn’t exist, until I discovered Brrrn, a new fitness studio in New York City that is turning down their thermostat, but their workouts are still packing the heat. Co-owned by Johnny Adamic and Jimmy T. Martin, the duo came up with the concept when they realized that there were no cool [pun intended] gyms in the boutique fitness world. The gym offers three classes known as 1st degree (a yoga-inspired mobility class set at 60 degrees), 2nd degree (a slide board, core and conditioning class set at 55 degrees), and 3rd degree (a battlerope HIT class set at 45 degrees).
I played it safe and signed up for their 2nd degree class taught by Caitlyn. Newcomers are instructed to wear light layers to class, such as gloves, hats, and a sweatshirt. Since I have a fitness background and had worked with slide boards before, I was familiar with the exercises we would be doing in class. At 55 degrees, the room felt cool and comfortable—far from what I expected. Once class started, we went through a warm up on the floor using our bodyweight and sandbells. As predicted, layers of clothing soon started coming off as we transitioned onto the slide board. Since many students hadn’t ever used a slide board, Caitlyn, broke down each exercise and safely demonstrated how to maneuver yourself around the slippery surface. Everyone appeared to be having fun sliding, lunging, and mountain climbing towards the walls appropriately labeled, “the South Pole” and “the North Pole.” The 45 minutes flew by and the cooler room temperatures actually make it more bearable!
After class I caught up with Martin and Adamic and learned more about their fitness concept. “When I was program designing this I was like what things would I show up to? I do yoga, I trained on the slide boards as a competitive athlete, and I like the hulk and bulk of slamming battle ropes,” Martin says. He clarifies that the classes aren’t labeled based on difficulty, but on their impact. “We were trying to match workouts that would work well in those temperatures from no to low impact to high impact movements. That’s what differentiates the degrees; not the intensity, but the impact.”
Adamic—who Martin calls the science arm of the team—is fascinated with the science behind the benefits of mild cold stress. He recalls, “A 2009 New England Journal of Medicine study, discovered that human adults have brown adipose tissue, but initially we thought it was only found in babies.” He says the reason this tissue is called ‘brown fat’ is because it contains cells full of mitochondria and when looked at under a microscope they look brown or gray. He points out, “So you wonder how do babies stay warm if they don’t have muscles?” He explains that our first form of defense from the cold and our core temperature dropping is through shivering. Shivering makes our muscles involuntarily spasm and from that we produce mechanical heat to stay warm. So how does this tie in to Brrrn’s exercise format?
Martin says, “There’s this thesis that we are always in this thermal comfort zone of 72 degrees, and that’s causing a lot of problems such as obesity, depression, and autoimmune diseases.” With Brrrn it’s all about optimizing the fitness experience by dropping the temperature in order for people to work out more comfortably. He says a cooler room allows muscles to focus on the exercise at hand, and also allows water and electrolytes to properly circulate to them.
Which begs the question; How do you attract the people who hate the cold? Martin doesn’t seem to be worried about that crowd and believes that they’ll change their mind once they take a class. He says, “The way we paint this picture to newcomers is to think of a crisp fall morning, not a cold wintry night. We actually are cool, not cold because of our temperature range.” And even though their classes may be on the chilly side, you can expect to be greeted (or hugged!) warmly by staff and instructors alike.
So if you’re willing to go out of your comfort zone, love a crisp fall day, and a good workout, Brrrn may be up your alley. With the upcoming summer months, I can’t imagine a better place to cool off.