- Cryotherapy can supposedly burn up to 800 calories in a few minutes.
- Medical studies linking cryotherapy to weight loss remain inconclusive.
- The FDA has not approved cryotherapy as a medical treatment.
- Side effects can be serious if the treatment isn’t administered properly.
What if you could lose weight by standing in a deep-freeze tank (up to 250 degrees below Fahrenheit) for two to four minutes at a time?
That’s what cryotherapy promises, along with a host of other benefits: increasing your metabolism, improving your sleep, releasing endorphins, reducing inflammation, treating sore muscles — to those who believe in it, it seems like there’s nothing cryotherapy can’t do.
But can this trending treatment actually help you lose weight in just a few minutes a day? We took a look at the scientific claims and investigated the evidence for and against it.
The Mechanics of Cryotherapy
Elite athletes and celebrities, including Jennifer Aniston, Kate Moss, Demi Moore, Mandy Moore, Jessica Alba, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and the Dallas Mavericks, have all tried cryotherapy and claim it helps them feel stronger and slimmer.
These treatments don’t come cheap: a single cryotherapy sessions can cost between $50 and $100 USD, and regular sessions – even daily – are encouraged to maintain results.
So, what does the procedure entail? While cryotherapy may be localized to one part of the body – say, a sore muscle – those seeking weight loss through cryotherapy generally opt for the whole-body procedure.
Whole-body cryotherapy involves stripping down to minimal clothing (underwear or a swimsuit) before entering a can-like enclosure cooled to extreme temperatures with liquid nitrogen. Some facilities may require you to wear knee socks, thick-soled slippers, ear muffs, and/or a surgical mask and goggles for your protection. You’ll spend two to four minutes in the chamber and then step out to return your body temperature to normal. That’s it.
How It All Began
For several years now, this seemingly simple procedure has been touted as a solution for a wide range of physical conditions. In fact, cryotherapy originally emerged in Japan in the 1970s as a treatment for multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. It eventually spread to Western countries, where it gained acceptance as a treatment for muscle soreness and inflammation, hence its popularity among elite athletes.
More recently, whole-body cryotherapy has become popular as a catalyst for rapid weight loss. The theory behind cryotherapy for weight loss is that the body burns more energy (i.e. calories) to stay warm when it’s cold.
While it is true that a cold environment generally causes the body to burn more calories than it would otherwise, cryotherapy for weight loss extrapolates this principle to the extreme, claiming that you can burn up to an astounding 800 calories in four minutes or less.
The extreme cold supposedly encourages your body to burn calories in equally extreme measures, igniting your fat-burning potential and causing you to lose weight at an impressive rate.
Is Cryotherapy Backed by Science?
Cryotherapy has been proven to help with certain conditions, such as wart removal. However, in most other cases, including weight loss, the evidence is murky at best. Findings from medical studies remain inconclusive on the effects of whole-body cryotherapy for weight loss. Much of the results are not statistically significant, and as such cannot be used to confirm the efficacy of the treatment.
As one study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine puts it, “The results indicate there are no significant statistical differences between the measures realized before the WBC (whole body cryotherapy) and after 10 WBC expositions for weight, fat mass, [and] lean mass.”
Likewise, the medical community remains skeptical on the wide range of positive claims supposedly associated with cryotherapy – including weight loss. Yet, it has become such a fad that the FDA recently felt it had to issue a consumer update emphasizing that there is a lack of evidence that cryotherapy can treat the conditions it claims to alleviate.
The FDA states that “not a single WBC device has been cleared or approved by the agency in support of these claims.” So, despite anecdotal rave reviews from celebrities touting the therapeutic claims of cryotherapy – for weight loss or otherwise – there’s simply not enough evidence to back them up at this time.
Some Side Effects and What to Expect
Perhaps you’re still curious about cryotherapy and would like to see if it can help you shed a few pounds. Or maybe you have a friend who swears that it helped her get in shape for her wedding. Regardless of the reasons, if you’re thinking about getting a session (or three), here’s what you should know before you go.
Because of the extreme cold, you’ll start feeling it immediately and may even begin to shiver. Some individuals struggle to last the entire recommended time period inside the cryotherapy chamber, which should be left unlocked so you can bail early if you have to.
There are also some less immediate potential side effects of which you should be aware. Stepping into a cryotherapy chamber can increase your risk of frostbite, burns and eye injury from the extreme temperatures. In fact, former Olympic track star Justin Gatlin got frostbite on his feet after getting into a cryogenic chamber while wearing damp socks.
How Dangerous Is Cryotherapy?
A rarer but far more serious risk is linked to the low levels of oxygen inside the cryogenic chamber. As the FDA notes, the nitrogen vapors used to cool the room lower the amount of oxygen available, which can lead to asphyxiation or a loss of consciousness.
While having a trained technician monitor your treatment lowers that risk substantially, the danger is real. In 2015, a 24 year-old woman in Nevada passed away from accidental asphyxiation inside a cryochamber at the spa where she worked. So, while cryotherapy makes big claims for fast weight loss, the truth is that there are safer and far more effective ways to get in shape.
If you’re looking to rid your body of stubborn fat, there are safer, more evidence-based methods. Some of these (CoolSculpting, namely) also employ cooling, but with a proven track record and significantly fewer risks. If you’d like to explore these other options, ask a cosmetic doctor on our forum for more information.
- P-12 The Effects of the Whole Body Cryotherapy on the Body Composition (2016) bjsm.bmj.com/content/50/Suppl_1/A38
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Whole Body Cryotherapy (2016) fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm508739.htm
- Whole-Body Cryotherapy for Preventing and Treating Muscle Soreness After Exercise (2015) cochrane.org/CD010789/MUSKINJ_whole-body-cryotherapy-preventing-and-treating-muscle-soreness-after-exercise