Can watching too much TV shorten your life?
In 2010, more than 9.5 million TVs were bought in the UK, and it seems we're spending more on TVs than ever before, with over 2 million flat-screen TVs of 40” or bigger sold in the same year. The average viewer watches around 28 hours a week (four hours a day), an increase of three hours a week since 2001 (1) and we also have more TVs in our homes, with an average of 2.4 rooms containing TVs.
The way we watch TV has changed too, with a shift from 'prime time' viewing to catch-up and on-demand services. BBC iPlayer and 4OD mean we never miss an episode of our favourite series, whilst services such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix put a whole library of films and TV shows at our fingertips, so there's little risk of running out of things to watch. But is this increase in TV viewing harmful for our health – could it actually shorten your life expectancy? We thought we'd dig a little deeper...
It might surprise you to know that the average woman watches four hours more TV a week than the average man, with women also underestimating the time they think they spend in front of the telly. As we age, we watch more – those over 65 average 40 hours of TV viewing every week! Perhaps even more shockingly, almost 72% of us regularly eat at least one main meal a day in front of the TV – those without children are more likely to dine in front of the box (2), statistics collected for TV Licensing's Telescope report reveal. Now researchers claim that spending too much time in front of the TV could actually knock years off your life.
Where's the evidence?
Experts from the University of Queensland in Australia claim those spending six or more hours a day in front of the TV risk dying five years earlier than those involved in more active pursuits. In fact, they say, 'every single hour of TV viewed may shorten life by as much as 22 minutes.”
Guidelines in the USA and Australia say that children should be spending no more than two hours a day watching TV, but researchers and health campaigners believe that a public health case should be made to encourage adults to turn off the box.
Dr J Lennert Veerman and his team studied the results of a survey from 1999 to 2000 where 11,247 Australians were questioned about their viewing habits, alongside the country's mortality rates. The researchers compared life expectancy for adults who did and did not watch TV, and their results revealed that every hour spent in front of the screen led to a life expectancy reduction of 21.8 minutes. This means if you watch six hours of TV a day, you could live 4.8 years less than someone who watches no TV at all!
A report in the Journal of the American Heart Association appears to back up these findings, claiming that adults who spend three hours a day watching TV could double their risk of premature death (3). The study assessed 13,284 young, healthy university graduates in Spain – the average age of the participants was 37. Researchers looked at the association between three sedentary behaviours – driving, using a computer and watching TV – and the risk of death over an eight year period. In that time, 97 deaths occurred – 46 from cancer, 19 from cardiovascular disease and 32 from other causes. Figures revealed that those who reported watching three or more hours of TV a day doubled their risk of premature death, although no link has yet been found between using a PC or driving and higher risk of death.
Why is watching TV so bad for your health?
Watching TV is a sedentary activity and we already know that physical activity is important for health – it's recommended we all try to fit at least 30 minutes of activity into our day. Whilst there's nothing wrong with crashing on the couch to watch a movie after a day at work, if you find yourself skipping yoga class for a night in front of Netflix, you're not doing your health any favours!
Sally Davies, England's Chief Medical Officer, explains, “Physical activity offers huge benefits and these studies back what we already know – that doing a little bit of physical activity each day brings health benefits and a sedentary lifestyle carries additional risks.”
Watching TV is one of the most common sedentary behaviours and it takes up a significant amount of our leisure time, when we could be socialising, going to the gym, gardening or taking part in other physical activities. Introducing more activity into your life is easy – walk to the shops instead of driving, use the stairs rather than the lift or try the Expertrain Couch Core Workout!
Nobody has ever claimed that watching TV is good for you, but extended periods of inactivity could increase your risk of developing some types of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes (4). Lazing around means you're using less energy, and when your muscles are inactive, the body produces fewer enzymes which control the level of sugar and fats in the blood, linked to metabolic function, which could lead to weight gain.
TV and food choices
We all tend to crave a snack when lounging in front of the telly – usually it's something unhealthy such as crisps or chocolate. Not only are you exposing yourself to food adverts on TV, but you may actually find you eat more than you intended too as you're distracted (in the same way you find yourself mindlessly munching popcorn at the cinema). Try to avoid snacking in front of the box, but if you have to, try a banana, rice cakes with nut butter or hummus or even a small bowl of air-popped popcorn with a little salt; all better choices than processed snacks or sweets.
Break the cycle
It seems that watching too much TV could really have a negative impact on your health, not only shortening your life, but also leading to weight gain, poor food choices and even social isolation. So how can you break the cycle? Well, you don't have to give up TV altogether, but experts recommend limiting your viewing to one or two hours a day. Let's face it, that's a good excuse to catch up on your backlog of work! When you're watching TV, try the following:
- Don't munch junk food in front of the TV – try to avoid eating in front of the box at all, if possible
- Take breaks – get up and move around or do a standing chore such as cleaning or ironing. Standing up for a couple of minutes every 20 minutes or so helps the body to regulate glucose and insulin levels
- Hide the remote and get up to change the channels or volume manually
There's nothing wrong with a few hours of TV a day, or even the occasional binge-watching of your favourite show, but if you find it becoming a regular occurrence, it could be time to widen your social circle or find a new hobby for your free time. TV should be a treat for those days when you're too tired to move off the sofa – something to enjoy after work, your workout and your evening meal. Cutting back on your viewing time can enhance your life and you'll probably find you have more energy to do all the things you've been planning to do!
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