Chess is a sedentary activity. But Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky says a grand master can burn through up to 7,000 calories a day.
“You have two humans, and they are taking part in some human ritual," Sapolsky said. "They are sitting there silently at a table. They make no eye contact. They’re still, except every now and then one of them does nothing more taxing than lifting an arm and pushing a little piece of wood. And if it’s the right wood and the right chess grand masters in the middle of a tournament, they are going through 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day thinking, turning on a massive physiological stress response simply with thought."
He compared what happens to a grand master's body during a tournament to that of "some baboon who has just ripped open the stomach of their worst rival, and it’s all with thought, and memories and emotions. And suddenly we’re in the realm of taking just plain old nuts and bolts physiology and using it in ways that are unrecognizable.”
To perform at an optimal level, the brain needs glucose, a form of sugar. It's the primary source of energy for every cell in the body. Because the brain is so rich in nerve cells, it is the most energy-demanding organ, using one-half of all the sugar energy in the body. Brain functions such as thinking, memory, and learning are closely linked to glucose levels and how efficiently the brain uses this fuel source.
But too much glucose is bad for you, of course. And stress can lead to overeating and weight gain, studies have shown.
So while there's a mental and even physical benefit from learning differential calculus or musical notation, don't rely on thinking alone to take off the pounds.
Sources: Stanford University (news.stanford.edu), Harvard University (harvard.edu).