With the rise of Netflix and on-demand services, vegging out in front of the television for hours on end—a.k.a., "binge-watching"—has become the new norm for many people. And it's hard to blame them! Why wait a week to see what's going to happen in the next episode of Game of Thrones or House of Cards when you can stream it immediately?
However, spending all that time watching TV might be doing you more harm than you realize. Sure, everyone knows watching TV isn't exactly the best way to spend time, but it's not that bad, right? At the risk of sounding like your mom, here's why stepping away from the TV screen more often is a smart move.
The biggest issue with binge-watching is how sedentary the activity is. If you're spending hour after hour watching episodes of a show, you're also spending hour after hour plopped on the couch. The extended amount of sitting and watching TV has actually been shown to produce some serious health consequences.
A recent study published in the journal Diabetologia found that each hour participants spent sitting per day increased their risk of developing diabetes by 3.4 percent. For those who watched, say, 50 hours of TV a week (which isn't a crazy number), that translated to an increased risk of diabetes of nearly 25 percent. A 2014 study found that beyond an hour per day, every two additional hours of watching TV led to a 21 percent higher chance of dying from cancer and a 44 percent higher chance of dying from heart disease—and that's after adjusting for the factors of age, sex, weight and diet.
Those scary outcomes all result from the extra amount of time heavy TV-watchers spend sitting. Extended periods of sitting has been linked to multiple health risks, including higher risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and death.
What makes these risks even more startling is that most binge-watchers have positive feelings about their habit of vegging out—meaning they think it's harmless. A 2013 survey found that "76 percent of TV streamers say watching multiple episodes of a great TV show is a welcome refuge from their busy lives."
I know what you're thinking—"But I'm active! I work out almost every day. If I want to take a load off in front of the TV all night, that's OK. I earn it with all that exercise!" I hate to break it you, but it doesn't work that way (I know, life is unfair).
Exercising actually does not erase the the detrimental health effects of prolonged periods of sitting. A recent study concluded that "prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity." That means going hard in the gym can't counteract the effects of watching Breaking Bad for eight straight hours.
The only way to avoid the consequences of prolonged periods of sitting is to spend more time on your feet and off your butt. With Netflix and streaming TV shows, it's shockingly easy to be sedentary for hours at a time. With no commercials and the constant beckoning of the next episode, it can be tough to avoid turning into a couch potato.
Forcing yourself to take short breaks and getting on your feet every half hour, whether for a simple 5-minute walk or a quick set of bodyweight exercises, is a good idea to avoid spending an eternity on your rear end.
Non-stop sitting isn't the only thing TV addicts have to worry about. Spending hours in front of the tube can also have a huge impact on your sleep.
Marathon TV sessions are a frequent pretext for staying up late and skipping valuable hours of shuteye. A 2014 survey found that 82 percent of people who binge-watch TV stay up late to do so, with 77 percent of them admitting to feeling tired the next day.
People often watch TV right up until they go to sleep—and many fall asleep with the TV still on. This is a bad habit to get into if you're looking to get high-quality, restorative sleep. The blue light that comes from TV screens (in addition to computer, phone and tablet screens) can prevent your body from naturally releasing melatonin—the hormone that promotes sleep. That means you're more likely to have a tough time falling asleep if you watch TV before bed; and when you finally do nod off, your sleep likely won't be very deep or restorative.
If you're one of those people who likes to fall asleep with the TV on, it could be keeping you from a happier life. Animal research has found that significant exposure to artificial light (such as from a TV or computer screen) throughout the night has been linked to depression symptoms. One study found that hamsters that were exposed to such light throughout the night showed signs of depression within a few weeks. They lost their appetite, exercised less and had changes in their brains typical of depressives. However, when the hamsters went back to a nighttime schedule of total darkness, their symptoms disappeared.
The lesson: avoid TV (or any other bright screens) for at least one hour before bed, and try to keep your room as dark as possible throughout the night. You'll get a longer period of restorative sleep, and you'll probably find yourself happier and more energetic as a result.
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