With the official start of spring still weeks away, chilly temperatures continue to dominate much of the country. While it’s tempting to crank up the heat, a bit of restraint not only reduces energy bills – it could help you lose weight.

An analysis from the University College London noted that Americans and Britons have been raising the temperature of their homes over the past several decades – correlating with the rise in obesity. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health decided to drill down on this correlation to examine just how temperature impacts calorie burning.

Energy expenditures were monitored for 15 men (average age 26) and 10 women (average age 32) as they alternated 12-hour periods in rooms heated to either 80 degrees or 60 degrees. The surprising finding: Exposure to 60-degree temperatures resulted in a 6% increase in calories burned without significant changes in physical activity. Moreover, exposure to lower temperature also resulted in a 13% increase in fatty acid levels in the blood, indicating that fat stores were being mobilized.

At work is thermogenesis: the conversion of calories to body heat. A similar dynamic was demonstrated in one German study where drinking 17 ounces of water increased metabolism by 30%, as increased energy was needed to heat the water to the body’s temperature. So, how can you use temperature to turbocharge your weight-loss efforts? Indoors, let your body acclimate to a cooler environment. Outdoors, exercise during cool weather without bundling up (e.g., shorts instead of sweats). By exposing your arms and/or legs you will not only burn more calories – you may augment your vitamin D levels by letting your skin soak in sunlight (which triggers vitamin D production).

One note of caution: If you’re prone to high blood pressure, exposure to cold temperatures could increase your vulnerability to heart attacks so exercise moderation in taking advantage of cool calorie-burning effects.

Published March 1, 2011