Experts weigh in on the best temperature for a workout

Molly Shea
Beauty and Health Editor
Yahoo Lifestyle
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

For years, yogis have flowed through poses in steamy, heated rooms, crediting the high temperatures with keeping muscles limber.

So it only makes sense that cold should have its time in the fitness limelight. Brrrn, a cold fitness studio in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, opens next week with classes held at 45, 55, and 60 degrees. The co-founders say that exercising at lower temperatures keeps the body from overheating and wasting energy on sweat rather than muscle performance.

“Exercise and heat dissipation, aka sweating, place competing demands on the cardiovascular system,” explains co-founder Johnny Adamic. “It’s like trying to talk to your mom on the phone while having an in-person conversation with your best friend. Both are lacking your full, undivided attention.”

The solution, he says, is dropping the temperature around you, so your body doesn’t have to work so hard to sweat. Sure, you’ll likely glisten by the end, but you won’t be losing electrolytes and dehydrating at the same level. Plus, the founders say, the cooler temps help boost the metabolism and reduce inflammation.

Others say that sweat can be a good thing.

At Lyons Den Power Yoga, a small chain of heated yoga studios in New York City, owner Bethany Lyons keeps the workout spaces between 90 and 95 degrees, with about 60 percent humidity.

“It supports what we’re trying to do from the get-go, which is warm up the body and make the muscles pliable,” says Lyons. “We don’t just rely on that, though. It’s still important that you’re creating contractions in the body and all of that. You still need to move.”

She credits her heat-is-good mentality to her years as a dancer. “All we did was wear leg warmers on top of leg warmers on top of leg warmers,” she says. The heat kept muscles limber, so they’d be ready to go when it was time to dance.

Now she says, “It feels good to sweat. It just feels good to fully rinse, and then get in the shower. There’s such a sense of satisfaction from leaving and wringing out your clothes.”

So what’s the best way to get an effective workout — turn up the thermostat or drop it down to winter temps?

Neither, says Heather Milton, a clinical specialist exercise physiologist at New York University’s Langone Sports Performance Center. She says that while hot and cold workouts may feel as if they’re kicking things up a notch, the extreme temps may just be a distraction for your muscles.

“Our bodies are very smart, and they basically have their own thermostat — they regulate themselves,” says Milton. “If you’re in a hot environment, your body tries to cool itself, so you’re shunting blood away from working muscles and toward the surface of the skin.” Your red, sweaty skin may look like proof of a tough workout, but the diversion can leave muscles starved for blood.

The body has an opposite reaction to cold. “You’re pulling more blood flow away from the periphery because you’re trying to keep your core warmer,” says Milton. “Your survival technique kicks in.” But that doesn’t mean that the blood is supercharging your muscles. “I haven’t seen any science that shows this is beneficial,” says Milton. Plus, she adds, “there is this greater risk [of an injury] if your muscles aren’t warm.”

Still, some research shows that training in certain temperatures can boost performance in others. A 2010 study found that cyclists who trained in 104-degree temperatures performed significantly better in 55-degree heat than cyclists who had trained at 55 degrees all along. And Milton says that mental benefits of high- or low-temp workouts are hard to deny: Overcoming the distraction of high heat or cold can help boost mental focus and agility, as long as the temps aren’t too extreme.

But for a normal gym session, you’re better off staying somewhere in the middle.

Alonzo Wilson, founder of the NYC-based training chain Tone House, says he keeps his gyms at an even 68 degrees — the preferred temperature for basketball courts and NFL weight rooms.

“When you work out here, you get what you call real sweat, which is when your body works to heat itself up, and then once you’re warmed up it works to stay cool,” he says. Because the workout is so cardio-intensive, he worries that performing Tone House moves at a higher temperature could put too much strain on the heart, or cause nausea or dizziness.

“If it’s extremely cold, you’re not going to be able to move enough to get the benefit of the workout. If it’s too hot, you’re not going to be able to move enough, either,” says Wilson. “This way, you can give it your all.”

Think of hot and cold workouts, then, as a bonus. They may not be the best way to get a good old-fashioned workout in, but they can boost your mental focus — and keep exercise interesting.

To find your own best temperature, tune in to how you feel next time you try a hot or cold workout. “Every body is a little different in its tolerance to heat and cold,” says Milton. “Your body is smart, so it tries to give you cues. If you feel uncomfortable, that’s a good sign that it’s too hot or too cold. If you’re unable to focus on your workout, that’s a sign.”

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