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Factually speaking, when comparing the brain to your muscles, your muscles are incredibly energy efficient. The brain of a non-obese person makes up only 2% of their weight but accounts for 20% of the resting metabolic rate. Just by being alive the brain alone consumes more energy than the entire muscular system.

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinology researcher and human biological behaviour professor at Stanford's University, has found and suggests that chess players can burn up to 6000 kilocalories in a 12 hours chess tournament.

The average untrained person burns between 7 and 14 kilocalories a minute while running; trained athletes consume way less calories than that. So a chess tournament can and often burns more calories than a 12 hours marathon.

It seems to me that in terms of time efficiency, sitting on your ass studying and thinking is a favorable option when it comes to weight loss.

Are there any regimens and "brain" workouts for weight loss out there?

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  • I don't really buy the premise, but you seem to suggest that any brain training will be more beneficial than a traditional workout. And if so, doesn't it follow that you can do a crossword puzzle or a sudoku (or any other puzzle) instead of working out?
    – Alec
    Jun 8 at 17:18
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    See skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/7527/…. That 6000 calories figure seems like an overestimate - any papers I can find with actual data suggest that intense mental activity is the physical equivalent of light desk work, burning about 100 calories per hour. You might burn a bit more from physiological stress responses in a high-pressure tournament setting, but just thinking harder won't do much. Jun 8 at 17:18
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No, there are no brain workouts for weight loss, and the premise you've founded this idea on is a bit rocky. Look at Robert Sapolsky's full-quote from this ESPN article (emphasis mine):

Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day. Based on breathing rates (which triple during competition), blood pressure (which elevates) and muscle contractions before, during and after major tournaments, Sapolsky suggests that grandmasters' stress responses to chess are on par with what elite athletes experience.

"Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners," Sapolsky says.

We know that weight-loss is a common response to stress, but it is not a healthy weight loss. In competitive/stressful environments we activate the fight or flight response. This response dumps hormones into our system getting us ready to run or fight. This increases heart rate and breathing which is associated with burning calories. The issue is that chronic stress causes a dip in your metabolism and increases your appetite and desire for unhealthy foods. This will lead to long term weight gain, not weight loss. In order to turn this into a program, you'd have to put yourself in this highly-stressful situation over and over, not just sit at your desk and study in a relaxed environment.

So, it isn't simply that thinking harder burns more calories, and Robert Sapolsky isn't making that claim, rather, being continuously stressed for 12 hours straight causes the calorie burn.


Same question was asked on Skeptics.SE that @NuclearHoagie linked in the comments. Robert's full book excerpt can be found in this answer on said question.

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    Just expanding on why C. Lange says it is not a healthy weight loss, and why it is not simply thinking harder that burns calories. In competitive/stressful environments we activate the fight or flight response. This response dumps hormones into our system getting us ready to run or fight. This increases heart rate and breathing which is associated with burning calories. The issue is that chronic stress causes a dip in your metabolism and increases your appetite and desire for unhealthy foods. This will lead to long term weight gain, not weight loss. Jun 8 at 17:43
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    Yeah. It doesn't seem he's making the claim that thinking causes the calorie burn but being continuously stressed for 12 hours straight causes the calorie burn.
    – DeeV
    Jun 8 at 17:49
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    FWIW, Scientific American seems skeptical too.
    – DeeV
    Jun 8 at 17:51
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    @EricWarburton and DeeV, I added your comments into the question and made it a community wiki. Feel free to edit the content or add accuracy + clarity. I've seen 3 or 4 chess questions pop up recently so I figure we should have an answer on here.
    – C. Lange
    Jun 9 at 1:07

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