Is thinking really hard a form of exercise? Can you burn calories? That’s what organizers of the 2018 Isle of Man International chess competition wanted to know, so they offered competitors heart rate monitors. During the tournament, Grandmaster Mikhail Antipov’s heart rate was the highest, and data revealed that he burned 460 calories during two hours of playing. That’s about what you would burn in one hour walking at 3.5 mph pace. How? The stress of intense chess causes a person’s heart rate to go up, which means more inhaling and exhaling. Breathing is what burns most of our passive calories during the day.
What about other forms of hard thinking? Does concentrating really intently on something burn more calories? Let’s break down how the brain works first. It uses glucose exclusively for fuel. During the average day, you use up 320 calories on thinking. When you engage in hard thinking, your brain needs more glucose. The brain actually uses 20% of the body’s energy, despite being just 2% of the body’s total weight. When you consider how essential the brain is and how many tasks it’s responsible for, it makes sense. It’s just amazing that something so small is so powerful.
So, can you force your brain to burn more calories? If you engage in a lot of strenuous mental activity, like chess, your brain will use more calories. However, experts believe it won’t make much of a difference. There would be maybe up to a 5% change in how many calories your brain burns compared to a normal day. It’s not as if you would burn enough to lose weight. What the Isle of Man’s heart rate experiment showed, however, is that chess could be categorized as a “sport.” This matters because sports get more funding than “games” or “mental activities,” which is what chess is considered now.