While watching television is not inherently hazardous—unless you accidentally roll off the couch onto a hard floor—TV viewing time is associated with weight gain, an increased risk for weight-related disease and a shorter life. An Australian study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that every single hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 22 minutes. By comparison, smoking a single cigarette reduces life expectancy by about 11 minutes. Long term, that means an adult who spends an average of six hours a day watching TV over the course of a lifetime can expect their, ehem, season finale to come 4.8 years sooner than a person who does not watch TV.
But wait. It gets worse: The results hold true, study authors say, even for people who exercise regularly. There are a number of reasons why the boob tube is not only hindering your weight loss, it's making you and your family fat. Here are 7 of them:
It Frees Up Your Hands for Munching
Computers, TVs, smartphones, tablets, game systems: all can be blamed for keeping us sedentary and mesmerized by a screen, but only the television, researchers say, is responsible for weight gain. A study in the journal Pediatrics showed teenage boys who reported paying the most attention to what was playing on television weighed 14.2 pounds more than teens who reported paying the least attention. For girls, the difference was 13.5 pounds. On the other hand, focusing on video games or computers was not linked with a higher body weight. Why? Researchers note that unlike typing or texting, watching TV frees up our hands to grab at snacks, which are often promoted during commercials. While it may not be practical to shun screen-use entirely, just being aware that the risk of being overweight increases with television use can help shape media use. You can wean yourself–and your kids–away from the TV with more interactive devices and content.
It Makes You a Sitting Duck
Most of us–unless we’re half-arsing a cardio workout at the gym–watch TV while sitting down. Or lying down. Or otherwise engaging in “sedentary” activity that researchers say poses a significant risk for weight-related diseases like diabetes. One study in the journal JAMA, for example, followed more than 50,000 middle-age women for six years. For every two hours spent watching TV each day, women had a 23 percent higher risk of becoming obese and a 14 percent higher risk of developing diabetes. A more recent analysis of similar studies found that for every two hours spent watching TV, the risk of developing diabetes, developing heart disease, and early death increased by 20, 15 and 13 percent, respectively. Scientists are still figuring out exactly why sitting is so detrimental to health, but one obvious and partial explanation is that the less we move, the less fuel we require; the surplus blood sugar floods the bloodstream and contributes to diabetes and other weight-related risks. In addition to generally cutting down on TV time, make a concerted effort to get up off the couch while you watch. For instance, challenge yourself to non-stop jumping jacks during the TV commercials (and pushups for every food-related ad!).
It Makes You Choose the Wrong Snacks
It’s a fact: The more hours we spend watching TV, the more unhealthy foods we eat. But why the correlation? According to a study in The International Journal of Communication and Health that investigated the psychological reasons for strong association, people who watch more TV have both a poorer understanding of proper nutrition and a more “fatalistic" view toward eating well. In other words, TV-fanatics are more likely to hold the belief that nutrition is too difficult to understand, compared to those who watch less. The study author suggests that because consumers are inundated food ads and conflicting messages as to what they should and shouldn’t eat, they develop these poor attitudes toward and knowledge about eating well. The good news is understanding nutrition has never been easier with the Eat This, Not That! newsletter. Sign up today and get the straight-forward, practical advice you need to keep you and your family healthy, straight in your inbox.
It's a Total Food Pusher
You weren’t even hungry. But then Paula Deen pulled something deep-fried and chocolate-dipped out of the oven and now you’re driving to the (next) nearest bakery for (another) slice of something sweet. That’s the devilish genius of food TV and commercials: they give us the munchies while suggesting foods that, more often than not, are particularly unhealthy. One study in the journal Appetite found people who watched a cooking program while snacking (on M&Ms) ate 34 percent more than a group that watched a nature program. And a study by the University of Liverpool found people who watched commercials for junk food on TV were more likely to then order high-fat and high-sugar foods from a menu–even when given the option to eat something healthier–compared to those who watched commercials for non-edible products. And, unfortunately, the food porn is hard to tune out. In fact, researchers say children and teens are exposed to at least one food ad per day, and nearly all (98 percent) of them are for products that are high in fat, sugar or sodium. So turn off Food Network and be mindful of the strong subliminal messages that are sent via food commercials. If you’re truly hungry, pregame your viewing session with a protein- and fiber-rich snack—away from the television.
It's a Mealtime Menace
Parents who let their teens watch TV during family meals tend to serve less nutritious food and have poorer family communication, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Researchers say reinforcing healthy media habits, especially around mealtimes, can’t happen soon enough. In fact, a recent study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting found watching-while-snacking during pregnancy can set the stage for childhood obesity, as expectant mothers who regularly watch TV while eating are more likely to continue the habit during their baby’s feedings and miss the subtle cues that indicate their child is full. Enforce a no-electronics policy at the dinner table, and encourage conversation instead. Study authors say given the opportunity, most children will talk about themselves and their lives at mealtime, leading to better family communication.
It Distracts You While You're Snacking
It’s right up there with drunk driving: distracted dining. OK, hardly as deadly, but eating in front of the TV is dangerous to your waistline. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that people who eat while watching television often miss satiety signals and consume 10 percent more in one sitting than they would otherwise. Not only that, distracted diners go on to consume an average 25 percent more total calories over the course of the day than those who dine unplugged. High-action television is particularly fattening. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found people consumed 65 percent more calories from snacks while watching a high-action, high-volume Hollywood flick than viewers who munched while watching an interview. Researchers say the more distracting a TV show, the less attention people pay to eating, and the more they eat. So turn off the tube and savor a meal in silence. It’s one of the pleasures of mindful eating—a form of food meditation that’s associated with weight loss.
It Interrupts Sleep
About 71 percent of adolescents have TVs in their bedrooms, and that poses a health risk, researchers say, because basking in the nighttime glow of a TV screen can seriously disrupt sleep, throwing off hunger signals and natural biorhythms that can cause weight gain—especially among children. One study in the journal Pediatric Obesity found that kids with access to a TV in the bedroom were 1.47 times as likely to be overweight as kids with no TV. That increased to 2.57 times for kids with three electronic devices. A second study found that children who slept in bedrooms with TVs gained about one extra pound of weight each year over the course of four years than kids without TVs in their rooms. Simply moving the TV out of the bedroom is one way to limit kids’ TV time, especially around bedtime. It’ll burn some calories too!