Ken McLeod, professor of bioengineering at Binghamton University, has made a practice of thinking outside the box. Most recently he’s put his innovative mindset on the problem of obesity—using a heater.
McLeod started researching body weight when his wife, a superintendent of schools, was mandated with providing obesity reports on students based on body mass index, including the entire football squad. McLeod came to the conclusion that the body is not trying to maintain energy balance — calories in versus calories out — but heat balance. Indeed, body temperature is tightly regulated and rarely varies by more than a few degrees.
He points out that the main benefit of exercising 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is that it increases your core body temperature. When your body temperature goes up, you produce more growth hormones. These hormones increase your metabolism and that keeps your weight in check.
In modern life however, people spend most of their time sitting — not exercising — in temperature-controlled environments that are about 30 degrees cooler than body temperature. While McLeod tackled office comfort and work productivity issues, he realized that physiologic systems are altered in a way that affects body weight.
The conclusion, says McLeod, is find a way to efficiently warm the human body. In a recent interview with PBS’s Innovation Trail, McLeod explained his rationale:
“If we’re not exercising enough to maintain our core temperature, we’re going to do something else; what that something else is, is insulating ourselves from the cold. We lay down white body fat under our skin.”
He noted that while a 1500 watt space heater in your office might help, but it’s an awfully inefficient way to fix 10-20 watts worth of heat imbalance. So he is building a personal heating device that directs warmth right at a person, instead of heating up the air around them.
The Binghamton University professor received Technology Accelerator Fund award from the Research Foundation to develop an infrared heating system using carbon dioxide lasers to efficiently warm the human body. He’ll also do a proof of concept study exposing people to 45 min per day in an infrared sauna and measure effects on body temperature, physiologic measures and long-term body weight changes.
Maxwell is the Coordinator of Digital Engagement for The State University of New York.