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Welcome to the chilly, sexist, silly season


With the media obsessed with accusing air conditioning, ASHRAE and, inevitably men, of sexism, Neil Everitt blows hot and cold over double Dutch temperature studies.

August is commonly known as the silly season due to the prevalence of “off beat” stories. This is mainly due to a lack of important news in a month when the summer is at its height and many people, including parliament, are on holiday. This year hasn’t disappointed.

Top of the silly tree already this month must be the huge amount of media attention given to a study which suggests that air conditioning is in some way sexist. You will no doubt have read all about it. The story has been kicking around for a couple of weeks but really came to wider media attention when published in the journal Nature Climate Change on Monday. Since then, you can’t move for media coverage of it.

Perversely, I am now, of course, adding to that media coverage.

In essence, the story is this: a new study by a team at Maastricht University has revealed that air conditioning – or at least ASHRAE which came up with the original design indoor temperatures in the workplace – is in some way sexist. Actually, I don’t think the report mentions “sexist” but that is the theme taken up by most of the media. The report maintains that, due to men and women’s differing metabolic rates, women require higher temperatures than men to be comfortable and work effectively. The Maastricht report argues that ideal office temperatures were devised in the 1960s, when workers were predominantly men, and, hence, the temperatures are now far from ideal for female staff. One journalist jumped on the idea that air conditioning was, by consequence, sexist, and the rest have followed.

It all comes down to the premise that the average woman is smaller and has more body fat than the average man. Women have slower metabolic rates than men, due to muscle having a higher metabolic rate than fat.

I thought that this particular difference between the sexes was a generally accepted phenomenon, making it very difficult to achieve the ideal temperature in a mixed sex environment, whether in the home or office. Anyway, the upshot is that the report calls for office air conditioning temperatures to be raised. 

What this ignores, of course, is that presumably men will then be too hot – and there have been plenty of previous studies which have supposedly proven that office workers perform less efficiently if too hot.

So what to do? Too cold and women don’t work effectively and too hot and men can’t work at peak efficiency.

Double Dutch

What the media has failed to pick up on is another report released just two weeks ago which suggests that a colder environment helps to avoid weight gains in both men and women.

A PhD research thesis by Dutch health scientist Anouk van der Lans claims that the amount of brown fat and energy use increases with exposure to cold, and that cold helps to avoid an increase in weight.

You see, there is brown fat (good) and white fat (bad..boooo!). Brown fat uses energy to produce heat and is therefore beneficial. This is in contrast to white fat, which only stores energy in the body. Slim people generally have more brown fat than overweight people.

Anouk van der Lans’ PhD draws on previous work carried out by Prof Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt who first put the topic on the global map.

Van der Lans was the first to expose test subjects, dressed only in shorts and T-shirts, to periods of  six hours a day for 10 consecutive days in a room where the temperature was reduced to between 13ºC and 14ºC. Initially the test subjects are said to have shivered quite a bit from the cold, but over time they became habituated to the low temperature. In addition, the exposure to cold increased the amount of brown fat and increased energy use as well.

The report concluded that exposure to mild cold could help avoid an increase in weight, that activation of brown fat by exposure to cold could actually be deployed in the future fight against excess weight and with benefits related to the fight against obesity and type 2 diabetes

While I have no wish to be accused of being sexist, this latter-mentioned report suggests that women obsessed with dieting, if given the choice, might actually prefer to work in chillier temperatures. However, if men were to choose the same method of weight loss, we’d be back to square one.

Either way, the upshot is that one report maintains that we should set the thermostat on our office air conditioning a few degrees higher, while the other suggests the opposite.

What has been missed is that Anouk van der Lans’ received her PhD on heat and its effect on weight gain at Maastricht University – the very same University that produced the recent report suggesting office temperatures were too cold for women!

But there’s more, the Maastricht University “sexist” office temperature study was the result of work by Boris Kingma and a certain Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, the same Maastricht University professor who studied the slimming benefits of colder temperatures.

I feel a headache coming on.

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