Clerestory

Chess and Stress

September 18, 2019

Apparently chess grandmasters are known to lose weight while playing chess. The sheer mental effort can burn 6,000 calories per day.

I’ve been thinking about this relationship between mental and physical effort, in part because I recently walked 115km of the Camino de Santiago. On the trip I had, after a 35km walk, my first experience of being mentally stultified from physical exhaustion. I’ve naturally felt pretty stupid from lack of sleep before. But on that day, I was well-rested. At the end of the walk, I found myself uncharacteristically speechless and thoughtless.

In youth, I absorbed a kind of mind-body dualism from the culture around me. As I’ve grown older, and investigated the question more thoroughly myself, my belief in the inseparability between the two has grown stronger.

But there are still surprises, like the fact that you can lose weight by thinking, or stupefy yourself with exercise. I’ve also wondered whether addictions to food or alcohol might really be a gut microbiome issue, dressed up as mental weakness.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.