Health and Debate: Part I by Lawrence Zhou

Lawrence Zhou is a graduate assistant at the University of Wyoming, head coach of Team Wyoming, and an assistant coach at Apple Valley High School. He was formerly the Director of Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Victory Briefs.

We often hear about the importance of staying healthy during debate tournaments but we don’t always understand why. In Part I of this series, Lawrence Zhou will cover precisely why it is so important to stay healthy during debate tournaments. In Part II, Joanne Park will elaborate on some practical tips on staying healthy while debating.

The Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” was an unexpected hit that sparked a huge surge of interest in chess: Chess sets and accessories were sold out for weeks, more women were inspired to take up chess, and online chess sites experienced massive upticks in sign ups. Of course, part of the boom was driven by the pandemic. Stuck at home with nothing to do, why not take up chess? What people often don’t realize about chess is just how physically demanding it is to play, at least at the higher levels. 

Take a second to guess: How many calories do you think a chess grandmaster burns a day at a chess tournament? Keep in mind that the FDA recommends that the average person consume 2,000 calories a day (a number that is probably too low) and a 154-pound person can burn 220-295 calories for each 30 minutes of playing tennis (which works out to about 600 calories an hour). 

What’s your guess? A couple hundred calories? Maybe like 2,000 calories? 

Well, whatever your guess is, it’s probably too low. According to Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford, a chess grandmaster can burn about 6,000 calories a day just from playing chess. That means they can lose two pounds per day of playing chess. 

Wait, how is that possible? A grandmaster might be playing a game that lasts for hours, but they are hardly moving (beyond extending the arms every so often to move a piece) and are seated for most of the time. 

Yet, the evidence is pretty overwhelming. ESPN reporter Aishwarya Kumar notes, “The 1984 World Chess Championship was called off after five months and 48 games because defending champion Anatoly Karpov had lost 22 pounds.” The same article notes that top chess players like Magnus Carlsen, the current world No. 1-ranked chess player and defending world champion; Fabiano Caruana, the current world No. 2-ranked chess player; and Viswanathan Anand, a five-time world champion, all maintain rigorous workout routines to keep their edge during strenuous chess tournaments. 

While the phenomenon is counterintuitive, there’s a good physiological explanation for it. Despite representing only around 2% of body weight, the brain likely “accounts for about 20% of the oxygen and, hence, calories consumed by the body.” And “The brain—unlike any other part of the body—runs exclusively on the sugar glucose, and strenuous cognitive activities require more glucose than simple ones.” Or, in other words, the more you think, the more calories you burn. When you feel tired after a long day at school, it’s because doing a lot of mental tasks can zap your mental energy (but please don’t take this as an effective substitute for weight loss or exercise). That’s probably why things like self-control are limited—it’s not because there is some ethereal well of “willpower” that you draw from—it’s because self-control, like all mental processes, requires physical energy and the body is simply “limited in its ability to supply the brain with sufficient energy to fuel mental processes.” 

But it’s not just the increase in cognitively strenuous tasks that’s driving the massive spike in calories burned. As Kumar explains in an NPR interview, “So the brain obviously is functioning at a much higher level, but we should understand that the brain alone is not causing the weight loss. The brain’s metabolism is causing for different reaction to occur in your body, like increased stress, like loss of appetite, like disturbed sleep patterns. And because of all of these different factors that the brain is setting off – that is the reason they’re losing weight.” In particular, that stress can cause a “cascade of physiological changes, such as an increased heart rate and oxygen intake, which would also cause you to use more energy.” 

At this point, it should be obvious where we’re going with this. If the phrases “increased stress,” “disturbed sleep patterns,” and “cognitively strenuous tasks” aren’t setting off alarm bells in your head, you clearly haven’t been to a debate tournament (or, at least, not an in-person debate tournament which can’t return soon enough). 

Debate tournaments are exhausting, even online ones. Debaters are often up bright and early, suffering from insufficient sleep, in a stressful environment, engaging with difficult and complex ideals, and usually not eating particularly well. These tournaments usually last several days where debaters often stay up doing additional research or hanging out with friends, depriving them of desperately needed sleep. And during the day, debaters are often juggling many different mental tasks at once while consuming too much caffeine and eating junk food

Even just the public speaking aspect is draining. As public speaking experts and coaches argue, “You are in constant motion, shaking off nervous energy, gesturing to make a point and often walking to help occupy the stage. Public speaking is as physical as it is verbal.” You can literally burn calories just by talking. And in heated debate rounds, debaters often make liberal use of wild hand gestures. That also burns calories! For example, it is estimated that Trump burns between 120 and 160 calories just from gesticulating during a 45-minute stump speech. 

So now when people say that debate isn’t a sport, they may be technically correct, but debate is more akin to a sport than they might initially think. 

While we strongly doubt that debaters are anywhere close to burning 6,000 calories a day like a chess grandmaster, we suspect (with good evidence) that debaters are burning more calories and putting more wear and tear on their bodies than they might suspect. Of course, high school students are usually a bit more resilient and seem to have more energy, but that does not make them immune from the effects of debate tournaments. 

In an activity where competitive success is often valued above mental and physical health, it’s important to have a discussion about physical and mental health, the norms around them, and how you can stay healthy during debate tournaments. Just like experts recommend that you should eat well, exercise, and rest before cognitively taxing activities like a chess tournament or even the SAT, we will recommend something similar.

In Part II, Joanne Park will cover some practical pieces of advice for staying healthy both in and out of debate rounds.