What's better for burning fat – a cold shower or a hot sauna?

Are you brave enough to see if a freezing cold shower (or better yet, a wild swim) can actually help you lose weight?

Women wears a beanie hat and swimming costume as she looks ready to swim in open water
(Image credit: Getty)

What burns fat better, a cold shower or a hot sauna? The answer is both...but in quick succession. 

Scandinavians are well known for their 'hygge' culture. The Nordic word translates to ‘wellbeing’ and is used to describe feelings of warmth and cosiness. But Scandinavian winter-swimming culture is on the other end of the scale, as practitioners like to plunge themselves into ice-cold water followed by a steamy hot sauna session over winter. Science has recently revealed this could be an effective way to burn fat. 

With the colder months settling in you might find yourself abandoning a chilly morning run and instead opting for the warmer option of a home workout, or attending your local gym to make use of the best exercise machines to lose weight. However, this Scandinavian winter swimming culture could actually be more desirable than it sounds. Firstly, open water swimmers love the sport for its community feel and mood-boosting effects during cold and dark winter days. 

Secondly, a study published in the Cell Reports Medicine journal found that the process of this winter activity could actually impact how the body burns fat. Those who routinely brave a dip in the Baltic Sea, or any freezing cold water for that matter, might find their bodies adapt to extreme temperatures better and in turn burn fat more efficiently.

The researchers at the University of Copenhagen recruited a group of young, male winter swimmers who regularly alternate having a dip in cold water with time spent in a hot sauna 2-3 times a week, over winter. Analysing the data of the swimmers' thermal responses to the different temperatures they compared this against a group of control participants.

Man enters cold body of water in his swimming trunks

(Image credit: Getty)

The scientists discovered that the swimmers who were subject to the contrasting temperatures burned more calories than the control group. This wasn’t from the exercise of swimming, but from just being submerged in the cold water.

The senior author of the study, Camilla Scheele said, “We found that the winter swimmers had a higher cold-induced thermogenesis, meaning that they burn more calories when they are cooled down.”

They believe that when the body is subject to contrasting temperatures, such as an ice cold plunge followed by a hot sauna, this might impact how the body burns energy and produces heat.

The scientists concluded, "Our results point to winter swimming as an activity that could increase energy expenditure, thus proposing a new lifestyle activity that might contribute to weight loss or weight control".

Are you inspired to shock your body with a breath-taking, quite literally, fresh open water swim followed by a hot bath? If not you don't have to put your body through such extremities to encourage more efficient fat-burning with contrasting temperatures. According to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, even something as simple as fuelling up on a warm brew of coffee half an hour before exercise is said to increase fat-burning. You could follow this up with a cold shower, or a chilly winter's walk in a pair of best shoes for walking.

Jessica Downey

Jessica is an experienced fitness writer with a passion for running. Her career in journalism began in local news and she holds a Masters in journalism. Jessica has previously written for Runners World, penning news and features on fitness, sportswear and nutrition. 

When she isn't writing up news and features for Fit&Well covering topics ranging from muscle building, to yoga, to female health and so on, she will be outdoors somewhere, testing out the latest fitness equipment and accessories to help others find top products for their own fitness journeys. Her testing pairs up nicely with her love for running. She recently branched out to running 10Ks and is trying to improve her time before moving on to larger races. Jessica also enjoys building on her strength in the gym and is a believer in health and wellness beginning in the kitchen. She shares all of this on her running Instagram account @jessrunshere which she uses for accountability and for connecting with like-minded fitness lovers.