The hidden health effects of binge-watching TV

Some people might say the obsession began with the hit Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black,” while others might argue that it was the debut of  “Breaking Bad” on the on-demand site that sparked the trend. Credit for igniting the spark matters little—millions of Americans are whiling away hours upon hours binge-watching TV, and they are potentially putting their health at risk in the process.

Streaming TV and movies online has become a staple of modern culture. As of December 2015, four in 10 U.S. households with basic TV services also subscribe to Netflix, Amazon or Hulu. Netflix alone has 40 million U.S. subscribers, of whom 61 percent report binge-watching TV shows at least once a month, according to published data from Netflix. It all averages out to about 10 billion hours of Netflix streaming a month.

Netflix defines binge-watching as streaming between two and six episodes of the same TV show in a single sitting. That means it is likely that far more than 60 percent of users participate in an expanded definition of binge-watching.

Research suggests that time lying motionless in front of the TV can raise your risk of developing chronic disease and dying early. A study published in the December 2015 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that every four hours spent binge-watching TV daily increases the risk of death from chronic disease by 15 percent, compared to those who watched less than an hour of TV per day. Among the more than 221,000 adults followed during the 16-year study, those who watched seven or more hours of TV daily had a 47 percent increased risk of early death. The subjects were between 50 and 71 years old, and they were healthy at the start of the study.

As jarring as these statistics may seem, there is hope for change. The TV-watching itself is not the biggest problem— it’s just one of the biggest contributing factors to a much larger problem: sitting. And, unlike sitting at your office desk, TV-watching increases activities that further contribute to risk of disease, such as distracted eating and missed opportunities for physical activity.

A 2014 meta-analysis showed that sitting leads to an increased disease risk for the majority of the population, especially certain cancers. The review included 43 studies analyzing the daily activity and cancer rates among people who reported sitting for more hours of the day than standing or sleeping. These individuals had a 24 percent greater risk of developing colon cancer, a 32 percent higher risk of endometrial cancer and a 21 percent higher risk of lung cancer.

Binge-watching is becoming the new normal for TV watching, meaning though research continues to reveal the number of dangers associated with sitting, modern culture continues to promote activities that encourage sitting.

Reversing the Damage and Staying Current on TV Favorites

The solution that seems most obvious is rarely the one anyone wants to pursue: give up TV. It is almost impossible to engage in small talk with anyone these days if you don’t dedicate at least a few hours each week to some award-winning TV show. It really is what everyone is talking about.

A 2002 study looked at participants in the Diabetes Prevention Program following subjects who were at risk for diabetes for three years. During that span, subjects were divided into two groups: individuals managing their risk with the drug, Metformin, and those that made lifestyle changes. Of the more than 3,000 participants, those on Metformin lowered their risk of diabetes by 31 percent, compared to a 58 percent reduced risk among those that changed their eating and exercise habits.

Researchers broke this data down even further and found that the greater reductions in risk were observed not only because the lifestyle group exercised more, but also because they engaged in less sitting.

To reduce your risk of disease and still keep up with your favorite TV shows, consider changing your sitting habits:

Swap your couch for a treadmill. If you live in fear of spoilers that are broadcast on morning radio and are now standard fodder for water cooler talks, dig that treadmill out of the closet and put it in front of your TV. Though it is no substitute for a focused workout, you will reduce your risk of diabetes, cancer, and other chronic disease simply by sitting less.

Reserve TV binges for sick days. When you are sick, you can’t do much more than lie in the bed or on the couch and hope for a speedy recovery. Make sick time a little more exciting by reserving your binge-watching for these days when you will be stuck motionless by default.

Use your feet for transport. One activity many people fail to calculate into their sitting time is their commute. If you have the option, walk, bike, or run to work. If your commute is too long or not friendly to these modes of transport, budget sitting and standing time accordingly. If you have a daily 30-minute commute each way, dedicate at least an extra hour to standing, walking, biking, or jogging outside of your normal routine, including your exercise routine.

Get a standing desk. It’s no secret that your car and your couch are not the only places you sit for too long. Millions of Americans are stuck seated at their desks for more than eight hours a day. If you can, invest in a standing desk. This will cut your sitting time and help you budget time for your favorite TV shows. If a standing desk isn’t an option, try to get up and walk around every hour for at least five minutes.

Exercise. Part of sitting less means that you also have routine exercise as part of your lifestyle. Join a gym, train for a race, or try out a variety of studio classes. Whatever you do, make it a regular part of your life and continue to make other strides toward sitting less.

Track your activity. There are a number of affordable quality activity trackers on the market today. Invest in one and make a deal with yourself: For every 5000 steps you achieve over your goal, you earn the right to watch one of your favorite TV shows that day. Increase the goal regularly to see your fitness improve as well as fit in your favorite TV shows.

Get an accountability buddy. Netflix also reports that 51 percent of binge-watchers “bring a friend” to their TV marathons. Instead of recruiting TV-watching buddies, ask friends to engage in activities that don’t involve sitting. Make a commitment to go to the gym together, as well as substitute TV time for walking around the mall or hiking at the park. Support each other in your efforts to sit less and protect your health.

You don’t have to get behind on TV favorites to protect your health, but you do have to get creative about how you watch. Perhaps the next phase of the “TV revolution” should be a transformation of the living room, where treadmills, spin bikes, and ellipticals replace couches and recliners, and the only thing keeping show after show rolling is your effort on the exercise machines.