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Air-conditioning: Why might women feel temperature differently from men?

By Who, What, Why
The Magazine answers the questions behind the news

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There's been a great deal of coverage of a study this week that suggested that women feel temperature differently in workplaces from men. Is there an explanation for why men and women might feel comfortable at different room temperatures, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.

A study by two Dutch scientists has offered an answer to the longstanding question many office workers ask come summer - why when some men in the office are reaching for the air conditioning, are some women slipping on cardigans?

According to the paper, women feel the cold more readily - one small sample test the researchers carried out suggests that women are comfortable at a temperature 2.5C warmer than men - between 24-25C.

According to Prof Paul Thornalley, of Warwick Medical School, variation in average metabolic rate and body heat production between men and women "may explain why there is a difference in environmental temperature required for comfort between males and females".

The body's metabolism is responsible for growth and the production of energy, including heat. Resting metabolic rate is the minimal rate of energy expenditure per unit of time while we are at rest, calculated through a standard set of equations. On average women have a lower metabolic rate than men.

"A great determinant of resting metabolic rates is the fat free body mass in people's bodies," says Thornalley - accounting for around 60% of the individual difference in men and women's resting metabolic rates. Because men have more fat free body mass - all the components of the body like skin, bones and muscle, but excluding fat - than women, they have a higher resting metabolic rate.

Major body organs, including the liver, brain, skeletal muscle, kidneys and heart are where most energy is consumed.

Non-movement production of heat - where energy is expended outside of active exercise - occurs in the body in "brown fat", according to Thornalley. Humans have two types of fat - white fat, a store of excess calories, and brown fat, which generates heat.

Brown fat produces heat involuntarily through a process called thermogenesis. It is regulated by the thyroid hormone and the nervous system, and may account for further variation of resting metabolic rate, particularly in men. (Babies have higher levels of brown fat than adults to stave off hypothermia while young.)

This higher proportion of body mass which is able to produce heat involuntarily means that on average men don't feel the cold as easily as women - and, in sultry summer months, means they have a lower tolerance for hot weather because their bodies produce more heat at a resting metabolic rate, getting warmer quicker.

But, as Thornalley is quick to point out, not every person is the same. Some men have lower metabolic rates than some women, and so in some cases it may be Dave on reception reaching for a jumper more readily than Ellie in the boardroom.

Some people also have suggested less scientific reasons for the general gender divide over the air-con - while some women wear light dresses in August, some men are stuck in stuffy suits.

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