When popular diet plans failed, Ray Cronise, former NASA scientist and founder of Zero G Corp., says he found an extraordinary way to lose weight by tapping into the laws of thermodynamics: he was going to literally freeze his butt off.
"The current paradigm of losing weight is diet versus exercise, calories in, calories out. I was able to do was figure out that another big part is the environment we're in. Our body temperature remains constant and it takes a lot of energy to keep it that way, no different than heating your house," Cronise says.
By exposing his body to cold in the right ways, he theorized, he could boost his weight loss. In fact, he doubled how fast he lost weight using these techniques, losing 30 pounds in six weeks.
"I treated my body like a thermostat…to see if I could run up the utility bill and get the furnace, [my metabolism,] running at full blast," he explained in a presentation on his weight loss given at Wednesday's TEDMED conference.
Cronise's inspiration came when, desperate to find a more efficient way to lose weight, he heard that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps ate 12,000 calories worth of food a day. Even with all the athlete's physical activity, it didn't make sense to Cronise why he would need that much.
"Then I found out it was the water," he says, because the cool water forced Phelp's body to constantly fight to maintain its temperature.
It turns out, this phenomenon was well-studied by the military and the space program in the 1950s and 1960s, only in the context of keeping weight on soldiers in cold, harsh environments, not on weight loss.
Using swimming and something called thermal loading, where the body is exposed to cold in various ways, Cronise applied this decades-old research and found that he could lose up to four pounds a week.
"You really think you're burning all these calories because you're sweating [when you work out], but when you're cold you burn way more calories," he said in his presentation.
"People usually have a problem losing the last 10 pounds on diets but it would get easier to lose that last 10 pounds with these techniques. The cool thing about this method is that the thinner you are the less insulated you are so it gets easier," he adds.
A more well-known use of these principles is the "ice water diet" where dieters drink eight or more classes of freezing cold water a day to force their body to work to warm up the beverage in order to digest it.
The body burns about seven to 10 calories in order to warm an 8-oz glass of ice water, so drinking large enough quantities of water can add some extra oomph to weight loss, according to the logic of the diet.
This principle gets taken to a whole new level with thermal loading. Cronise's experience and other tips on how to use this potential weight loss will be published in the upcoming work of Tim Ferriss, author of "The 4-Hour Workweek".
The new book, "The 4-hour Body", comes out Dec. 14 and will include a chapter written by Cronise.
"Ray was a case study within the book and a scientific fact-checker," Ferris says. The book will cover much more than weight-loss methods, however. It is what Ferriss calls a "minimalist cookbook for rapid body transformation."
"I spent the last three years doing hundreds of experiments on myself and on hundreds of other people testing what should be most effective for everything from rapid fat loss, muscular gain, ultra-endurance, sleep reduction, sex," he says.
The search took Ferris from the U.S. to South Africa , Olympic training centers to black market chemists while he tried to find the smallest changes that produces the biggest results. And one of them was how to use temperature manipulation to improve fat loss by 300 percent, he says.
Taking ice baths, chugging ice water, exposing the body to cold in various ways all come up as ways of challenging the body to burn more calories, but are these strategies that the common dieter is likely to adopt?
Dr. David Katz, director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center and professor at Yale University, was dubious that capitalizing on these laws of physics would be dieter-friendly: "Being cold is uncomfortable. Frankly, if people are willing to be that miserable to lose weight they might as well try eating well and exercising."
But Ferris argues that it depends on the person: "If your job was to eat 15 percent less calories is a lot harder for some people to comply with than to do a couple cold baths a week. The decent diet you follow is better than the perfect diet you don't follow."
But shocking the body with cold can be taken too far or done too fast, Ferriss notes and Katz warns that for those at cardiovascular risk especially should think twice about ice baths.
Exposure to extreme cold could lead to a cardiac event in those at risk, Katz says, and it can affect blood flow to vital organs, blood pressure, or induce cardiac arrhythmias. Ice baths specifically, Katz says, puts stress on the body that has the potential to cause a number of health problems for certain individuals.
Ferriss' "cold diet" doesn't mean freezing your body into hypothermia however, and there are milder, more manageable ways of using thermal loading to boost the body's furnace.
Cronise, for one, says he could never go neck-deep in an ice-bath, but he has been able to keep off his 50 pounds using other, more tolerable cooling techniques and a commitment to a healthier lifestyle.
TEDMED is a yearly conference dedicated to increasing innovation in the medical realm: "from personal health to public health, devices to design and Hollywood to the hospital," the website explains.