With millions of Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, many who have worked from home over the past year will head back to the office. Adjusting to new routines is challenging and can affect our health and fitness. We were more sedentary or more active, gained weight or lost weight.
As part of my work as a biomedical engineer, I investigate how physical factors affect human metabolism. This includes size and weight, gravity and air temperature. My research colleagues and I have found that living or working in a cool environment for long periods of time can lower body temperature. This lowers the metabolic rate – how fast we burn calories – and often leads to weight gain.
Humans are homeotherms – that is, we maintain a relatively constant body temperature. Specifically, we keep our body temperature in the 97 Fahrenheit to 101 Fahrenheit range, even in cool environments. Three different types of metabolic activity keep our bodies warm.
The first is the basic metabolism. About two-thirds of the calories we burn every day fuel basic body functions, all of which generate heat: breathing, blood circulation, cell growth, brain function, and food digestion. Any kind of physical activity also generates heat through chemical reactions that cause muscles to contract.
A third heat generation process takes place in specialized tissue called “brown fat”. It’s a leftover evolutionary adaptation that saved us from freezing during the Ice Ages. It starts when our core temperature drops to very low levels, but most people lose their brown fat as they get older.
As our body temperature increases, our metabolism increases and we burn more calories. This creates more heat and further increases our body temperature, creating a positive feedback process that normally keeps our body temperature in the healthy range.
However, this process is remarkably sensitive to temperature. For every 1 degree drop in body temperature, our metabolic rate can drop by more than 7%. This means that the resting metabolic rate for someone with a body temperature of 101 F (the high end of normal) is up to 30% higher than a temperature of 97 F (the low end). A four-degree increase in body temperature can burn more calories during the day than the average person burns from all their daily physical activity.
Because of this, a change in your physical environment can significantly change the way your body works – and has an impact on both health and fitness. If you are putting on weight and not sure why, check the thermostat you live or work in.
Most offices are typically kept near 70 degrees. This is why so many of your employees complain about being cold, wearing sweaters or jackets, or using space heating. This is too cold for most women – and many men – who sit at a desk all day. But it’s more than uncomfortable; It is not healthy.
At the “right” room temperature you feel comfortable: not too hot, not too cold. This is generally between 72 and 81 degrees with moderate humidity, but it can go up to 65 or up to 85 degrees.
Working in a cold office slows down your metabolism. In addition to the challenge of weight management, slow metabolic rates have been linked to a decreased immune response, heart damage, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
If you’re not in control of the thermostat, besides wearing a coat all day, you have a few options. New technologies include a wearable personal device that changes your perception of heat and cold. a passive exercise device that increases your metabolism by increasing cardiac output; and a “smart” version of traditional space heating.
However you achieve it, do your best to stay comfortably warm in your future workplace.