The internet is a great tool for sharing information — and hawking dangerous misinformation. We’ll be taking a look (on a weekly-ish basis) at the products favored by celebrity shills and lifestyle bloggers to separate the good from the bad and asking a simple question: Does this viral trend actually work?
For those members of the internet economy who spend their days locked in front of a computer screen, few things are more dreadful than a news story about the negative effects of sitting. Sitting kills. Sitting is the new smoking. Even if you exercise. But where there is low-key terror about the sedentary nature of the modern world, there are also business opportunities. Alongside standing desks and Soylent, a new category of product has emerged: clothing that burns calories. The most masochistic of which is a vest filled with ice called The Cold Shoulder.
Invented by Wayne B. Hayes, an associate professor at the University of California–Irvine and a visiting scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the vest is meant as a weight-loss tool that should be used in conjunction with exercise and dieting. As Hayes himself writes in a “beginner’s guide to weight loss” that accompanies the vest: “You can’t outrun your fork, and you can’t outfreeze your fork either. But cold exposure can add to your weight loss regimen in the same way that exercise can — by burning off some extra calories even if you’re not in the gym doing it.”
Still, Hayes’s claim that the vest can burn a whopping 250 calories an hour is huge. That’s roughly the equivalent of a Cadbury chocolate bar, a fistful of Sour Patch Kids, or a leisurely session on the elliptical. According to André Carpentier, an endocrinologist at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, a calorie burn that significant is theoretically possible. Exposure to the cold causes people’s bodies to burn energy at a quicker rate as a way of staying warm. And there are two main mechanisms for this extra energy burning: The first is shivering, which ups your muscular activity to compensate for your body’s loss of heat and usually means you need to put on more clothes immediately. The second is an exposure to cold that doesn’t cause shivering, but does cause the burn of “brown adipose tissue,” a.k.a. brown fat, which has been known to “burn calories like a furnace.”
But in Carpentier’s past experiments, this has rarely happened. He has monitored patients as they donned full-body suits that circulated 64-degree water, and the fastest he could get them to burn 250 kilocalories was in three hours — a sign that Hayes may be exaggerating his product’s capabilities.
“To burn that, you have to shiver quite tremendously,” Carpentier told me. “And it’s not comfortable.”
The Cold Shoulder, by contrast, is designed to go after that brown fat, and therefore is not designed to make you shiver. I was grateful for this aspect of the product as I wore it intermittently since late January. Though my employer at the time very graciously provided me with a standing desk, I wanted to further battle my mortality. When I received an email pitch for a vest that burned calories, I eagerly accepted. Despite the cautionary language that Dr. Hayes included in the vest’s pamphlet and on his (poorly designed) website (1800icevest.com!), I imagined it as a mythical key to staving off the early death to which my sedentary job had sentenced me. And deep down, I hoped that — as dopey as this saggy, blue-felted life jacket full of ice made me look around the office — it would make me skinny enough for the whole ordeal to be worth it. I stored it in the office fridge, right next to someone’s Soylent.
I have always been The Cold Person™ who wraps herself in an unreasonable number of scarves at the slightest hint of a breeze, who is appalled at a significant other’s decision to crack a window before bed. But I adapted quickly to the temperature of the vest. It never caused me the numbing pain I’ve felt when I forgot to wear gloves in 5-degree weather. (Your body hates it when you cool down your limbs, and triggers pain receptors to prevent you from doing that). A steady pack of ice on my back, shoulders, chest, and torso for hour-long stretches, in contrast, seemed to only cool my skin, not the womanly spirit that burns within me. Ultimately, very little of my discomfort came from the temperature, which I soon associated with a slight, necessary suffering that was needed to approach Kate Middleton-dom. Mostly, it came from the fact I had to explain to everyone in my office why I was wearing an ice vest. (My short answer: “For science!”)
Then, there was the maintenance. Hayes recommends wearing the vest twice a day, until the gel packets have gone limp within the vest, and it hangs on your body like one massive soggy water balloon. This usually takes about an hour, at which point you must re-deposit the vest in the freezer, wait patiently, and then put it back on. There is no way to do this discreetly — people are typically confused by what you are carrying, and they may even strike up a conversation about it. You have to really want this.
Speaking of, for however many calories the vest caused me to burn throughout the day, wearing it also empowered me to snack as much as I wanted. Why else would I embarrass myself in a stupid vest — I told myself on the way to the office kitchen each day — if not to eat a fucking bag of Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips in peace. It eventually dawned on me that I was offsetting the calorie loss with these delicious chips, and nothing had changed by the end of each day, save the fact I spent it wearing an ugly accessory. I later learned this behavior was normal. “Although people burn extra calories from this cold exposure, they tend to eat more to compensate the energy loss,” Carpentier said.
In terms of measuring my weight loss, it was hard to know how well the vest was working independently from other things in my life that varied, like the number of exercise classes I’d attended that week, or how many glasses of wine I’d drank. Either way, I saw no real difference in my body during the period of time that I wore it. It became clear that it probably didn’t make a difference either way.
One day as I went to grab my vest out of the freezer, I discovered someone had spilled iced coffee on it. This was the opportunity I had hoped for and I immediately initiated a slow fade. I brought it home in a bag, removed the gel packets, neglected to wash the exterior for months, and resumed my normal body temperature at work. When I finally did clean it, I stored it away in my tiny freezer at home, and began to repurpose it for my own devices, away from the panopticon gaze of my coworkers.
These days, I wear it post-workout, to ice my bum shoulder, or as a kind of poor woman’s AC. Every now and then, when I expect to have a motionless night in front of my laptop, I’ll whip it out and wear it with pride. It may not work, but I’ll do anything for a little relief from the existential dread that comes from being chained to my laptop until the end of time.
Instagram-worthy photos: 0 — Unless you’d like to be mistaken for a special needs SWAT team member.
How well it worked (on a scale of 1–10, 10 being totally perfect and legitimate): 5 — Seemed to burn calories, but also increased my appetite. Benefits are likely exaggerated.
Cost: $99.99 or three “easy” payments of $33.33
Difficulty (on a scale of 1–10, 10 being way, way too hard): 7 — For general public humiliation.
Worth it? No