Many Ways to Rome: Exercise, Cold Exposure and Diet—Do They All Affect BAT Activation and WAT Browning in the Same Manner?

The discovery of functional brown adipose tissue (BAT) in adult humans and the possibility to recruit beige cells with high thermogenic potential within white adipose tissue (WAT) depots opened the field for new strategies to combat obesity and its associated comorbidities. Exercise training as well as cold exposure and dietary components are associated with the enhanced accumulation of metabolically-active beige adipocytes and BAT activation. Both activated beige and brown adipocytes increase their metabolic rate by utilizing lipids to generate heat via non-shivering thermogenesis, which is dependent on uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) in the inner mitochondrial membrane. Non-shivering thermogenesis elevates energy expenditure and promotes a negative energy balance, which may ameliorate metabolic complications of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM) such as insulin resistance (IR) in skeletal muscle and adipose tissue. Despite the recent advances in pharmacological approaches to reduce obesity and IR by inducing non-shivering thermogenesis in BAT and WAT, the administered pharmacological compounds are often associated with unwanted side effects. Therefore, lifestyle interventions such as exercise, cold exposure, and/or specified dietary regimens present promising anchor points for future disease prevention and treatment of obesity and T2DM. The exact mechanisms where exercise, cold exposure, dietary interventions, and pharmacological treatments converge or rather diverge in their specific impact on BAT activation or WAT browning are difficult to determine. In the past, many reviews have demonstrated the mechanistic principles of exercise- and/or cold-induced BAT activation and WAT browning. In this review, we aim to summarize not only the current state of knowledge on the various mechanistic principles of diverse external stimuli on BAT activation and WAT browning, but also present their translational potential in future clinical applications.