Does running in a dream burn calories?

12 September 2010

Question

If you dream that you're running, you wake up tired. Is that because your brain believes that you were actually running? And do you burn calories?

Answer

Chris - What a terrific idea - sort of lazy exercise isn't it? You sort of lose weight while you are dreaming and sleeping! Well the answer is kind of yes, to a certain extent and let me explain why. When you go to sleep your metabolic rate is lower than it is normally anyway. You go down closer to your basal metabolic rate because your brain is less active, but it is not less active all the time. When you actually start dreaming your brain activity actually becomes very, very high. It's almost, in fact, as active as when you are awake, and so your brain metabolism will mean that because you are dreaming, you are burning more energy for a start. But also when you dream there is a part of your brain called the subcoeruleus region, which is in your brain stem - the thing that connects your forebrain to your spinal cord. The role of this brain region is to gate or suppress the passage of motor information going out from your brain to your muscles, to stop you acting out your dreams. So when you are dreaming about something that involves physical activity - you might have had these dreams where you suddenly think, I feel really weak, I can't run away fast enough, or I can't get away. And there is also a manifestation called sleep paralysis when people wake up, but this paralysis hasn't been taken off (which should happen when you first wake up) and they lay there feeling seemingly paralysed and can't move for a little while before this brain region turns off. So although you've got this paralysis going on, some of the muscles that you would normally be using to run away, or do your thing - whatever your doing - your exercise in your dream, those muscles might be a little bit more facilitated, they might be a little more keen to work than they would do otherwise. So you might find that there is a slight elevation in metabolic rate because of the dream. But it is not going to be unique to a dream about running. You will burn a few more calories, but just because probably you are dreaming and therefore more active during that phase of sleep. But I don't think you could programme or plan to go to sleep and dream intensely about running and exercise and then wake up both fitter and lighter in the morning, unfortunately. Dave - I Guess unless you are sleep walking?

Chris - Well that's true. That is a very good point!

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