Talking is something most of us do every day without much thought. But have you ever wondered if all that talking actually burns a significant amount of energy? In this article, we’ll explore the science behind speech and find out if talking really does use up a lot of energy.
How talking works
When we talk, we engage a complex series of muscles and organs including the lungs, vocal cords, tongue, lips and more. Air from the lungs is pushed up through the trachea and vocal cords, causing them to vibrate and generate sound. The tongue, lips and jaw then further sculpt this sound into understandable speech.
The speed and complexity of speech requires finely tuned coordination between the brain and these muscles. This coordination is part of what makes the human vocal system so unique and powerful.
How much energy does speech use?
Studies using modern equipment have found that quiet talking at a normal rate consumes around 2.5 calories per minute. Louder and more rapid speech can burn 3 to 4 calories per minute.
These numbers may seem small, but they add up throughout the day. The average person speaks at a casual rate of about 150 words per minute. This works out to around 180 calories burned per hour of quiet talking. Speaking loudly or quickly for an hour could use over 200 calories.
Most people speak between 7,000 and 16,000 words per day. This equates to 600 to 1,400 calories burned daily just from speech. That’s similar to the amount of energy used on a 30 to 60 minute walk.
How speech burns calories
Talking requires your body to perform several energy-intensive tasks:
Speaking necessitates controlled, rapid breathing to produce a steady stream of air. Your diaphragm and intercostal muscles have to work hard to keep your lungs inflating and deflating. Quiet breathing at rest uses only around 1 calorie per minute. But this can double during average speech and increase further for rapid or loud talking.
Vocal cord vibration
Your vocal cords open and slam shut extremely quickly when speaking, often 100 to 150 times per second. The vocal cord muscles have to contract and relax at very high speeds to sustain this rapid oscillation. This fast-twitch muscle work consumes significant energy.
Forming distinct vowels and consonants uses your tongue, lips, jaw and throat muscles extensively. The movements of these muscles are very precise during speech and require substantial energy input. Simply holding your mouth open slightly while talking burns around 2 calories per minute.
Speaking engages extensive neural circuits that connect speech motor centers to language and cognition areas. This brain activation results in increased blood flow and oxygen use, burning calories. The brain utilizes 20% of the body’s energy even at rest. This increases during demanding tasks like speaking.
Factors that influence energy expenditure
Not all speaking situations require the same energy cost. Certain factors influence how many calories are burned during speech:
Louder speech exaggerates vocal cord vibration, breathing depth and muscle contractions. Yelling can burn over 50% more calories than quiet talking.
Fast, hurried speech amps up the intensity and speed of breathing, vocal cord movement and articulation. Slow, deliberate speech consumes less energy.
Elaborate, descriptive language with varied tones is more metabolically demanding than simple, monotonic speech. Presentations or lectures often burn more calories than casual dialog.
Sustained talking spikes energy expenditure, especially when few breaks are taken. Speaking for an hour without stopping significantly raises calorie burn. Short bursts of speech interspersed with periods of listening require less energy.
Posture and gestures
Standing while speaking uses more energy than sitting. Expressive hand gestures and movements also burn additional calories.
Trying to speak loudly in noisy environments increases vocal effort and metabolic costs. Amplification systems at events help reduce speaker calorie expenditure.
How speech affects other body systems
Speaking not only burns calories through muscle activity, but also triggers other physiological changes:
Intense speech can elevate heart rate, blood pressure and cardiac output, especially when anxious or angry. However, these responses are typically transient and unlikely to be harmful in healthy adults. Speaking helps exercise the heart.
Lung vital capacity gets utilized during speech. Forced vital capacity can increase with routine speech practice. However, those with lung disease may experience dyspnea or coughing with prolonged talking.
Occasional public speaking helps expose people to diverse bacteria that may confer immune benefits. But excessive talking could potentially trigger coughing and spread infectious droplets when sick.
Stress hormones like cortisol transiently increase during anxiety-provoking public speaking. With practice, these responses are reduced. Speech presents little danger to endocrine health in most people.
|Effect on Energy Expenditure
|Louder speech uses more energy
|Faster speech uses more energy
|More complex speech uses more energy
|Prolonged speech uses more energy
|Standing and gesturing uses more energy
|Noisy environments increase vocal effort and energy use
Does more talking lead to weight loss?
It’s tempting to think that burning extra calories through abundant talking could add up to meaningful weight loss. However, the energy expenditure from speech is generally too small to have a significant impact on body weight.
To lose one pound of fat, a person must create a 3,500 calorie deficit through reduced calorie intake and/or increased calorie burn. The 100-200 extra calories burned per hour of talking are a drop in the bucket towards this goal.
That said, some studies suggest that substituting sit-down television watching with standing conversational time may modestly assist weight control. Any activity requiring light movement and engagement is preferable to sedentary behaviors for metabolic health.
But typically, focus is better placed on daily exercise, calorie reduction and nutrition rather than the notion that talking more will lead to substantial weight loss. Be wary of dubious products that claim you can “talk your way thin.”
Ways to conserve energy while talking
If you frequently give long speeches or lectures, employ tactics to avoid fatigue:
- Use a microphone to avoid straining your voice
- Take frequent pauses to rest your vocal cords
- Shift your posture and move around periodically
- Sip water to stay hydrated
- Reduce unnecessary filler words like “um,” “uh,” “like,” etc.
- Avoid raising your vocal pitch unnecessarily
- Present seated rather than standing when possible
- Display visuals to minimize verbal explanations
- Focus on taking deeper, slower breaths
When speech may suggest health issues
Most people don’t need to worry about the caloric costs or exertion of everyday speech. But in certain situations, changes in speech patterns may indicate underlying medical problems:
- Shortness of breath or wheezing during speech can signify lung disease
- Slurred, confused speech may indicate a neurological problem like stroke
- Weakened voice or vocal fatigue could result from acid reflux or dehydration
- Sudden speech difficulty may be a sign of a brain tumor or seizure
- Increased vocal effort and coughing can be caused by muscle tension dysphonia
See your doctor if speech feels significantly more tiring or difficult than normal. Don’t ignore new speech impairments, as they could represent serious conditions requiring prompt evaluation.
Talking requires the coordinated effort of multiple muscle groups and burns 100-200 calories per hour. While not a massive amount of energy expenditure, this can add up over a day of frequent speech. However, drastically increasing speech is generally an ineffective standalone weight loss strategy. Those who regularly give long presentations may benefit from techniques to conserve their energy and vocal stamina when possible. For most people though, occasional fatigue from daily conversation is harmless and simply the cost of being an expressive, social human.