OCT 02, 2018 5:09 AM PDT

Can You Think Yourself Thin?

Overthinking something isn't a good idea right? It can cause extra stress, anxiety, and worry. Well, yes, but a new research study from the University of Albany suggests that thinking about something can actually burn calories. So should you stay home, put on your thinking cap and skip the gym? Not exactly.

The brain has been called the world's most powerful supercomputer. And it is, it handles thousands of neural connections every minute of the day to keep the body running and the mind sharp and efficient. It's not like muscles though; it's a different kind of energy than what is expended during physical activity. According to the Britannica.com, "The calorie was originally defined as the amount of heat required at a pressure of 1 standard atmosphere to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1° Celsius. Since 1925 this calorie has been defined in terms of the joule, the definition since 1948 being that one calorie is equal to approximately 4.2 joules." So, when energy is produced, it creates heat, heat burns calories.

Many people don't realize however that 8-15% of the calories burned every day are burned as a result of the energy from chewing, swallowing, and digesting food. Even higher amounts of energy are needed just for the body's organs to work, and the brain is a big consumer of energy. Dr. Ewan McNay, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Albany and author on the research into calories and mental effort. If you're home watching TV and thinking, "Hey, these Real Housewives sure do fight a lot, and they get all dressed up to do it" are you burning calories? In an interview with Time, Dr. McNay stated, "The basic answer is yes."

There is a caveat though. Some calories are burned just by watching a movie, but that doesn't mean that Netflix (with or without the chill factor) is a better option than the gym. The type of cognitive effort you put forth matters, He continued, "You will, in fact, burn more energy during an intense cognitive task than you would vegging out watching Oprah or whatever. But in the context of the average person's overall energy expenditure, the difference in calorie burn from one mental task to another is a tiny amount."

McNay told Time that the difference between a person watching television for 8 hours (come on, you know you've binged at least that long a few times) and a person taking a difficult music lesson for 8 hours is only about 100 calories. Spending that much time on a new skill, that's complex requires a great deal of energy, which the brain gets from glucose. So you'd have to have a sports drink or at least a few pieces of candy or sweets to keep up the effort and there go those calories, back into your body. Still, it's important research because people who have jobs that are mentally demanding and who spend at least 8 hours a day working will, over time, burn some calories, and it's better than nothing. Don't skip the gym, but maybe do a few crossword puzzles now and then to keep the brain in shape. Check out the video clip below to learn more.

Sources: Frontiers in Psychology, Time, Men’s Health

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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