Posted on Jun 26, 2014

Many experts and doctors always caution people about TV, saying that watching too much television could weaken your eyesight. But now a new study poses an even more harmful effect. Apparently, too much TV can actually shorten your lifespan.

Time magazine reports on the terrible effects of too much TV.

New research shows that watching a lot of TV can double a person’s risk of premature death. There are many factors that account for this causal relationship.

What is it about TV watching that increases our chances of dying earlier?

When people sit around on their sofas watching TV they limit their mobility. It leads to lack of exercise and general physical activity, which then in turn leads to weight gain and the health issues that go along with that gain. The new study has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

How was the study conducted?

Researchers wanted a broad and comprehensive analysis so they looked at over thirteen thousand people who were college graduates. They watched the habits of these people in activities like sitting on the computer, driving and watching TV.

Fox explains, “The researchers gathered data on 13,284 healthy university graduates, with an average age of 37. They followed up with participants every two years, and surveyed them on topics including the number of hours they spent driving, watching television and on the computer. At the end of the study period, 97 participants had died, and the researchers came to some surprising conclusions about the link between these activities and risk for early death.”

The scientists had followed the participants for around eight years. Overall out of the over 13,000 participants, and out of the 97 who died, 19 of those deaths were from cardiovascular causes, 46 were from cancer, and 32 were from other random factors.

Dr. Gonzalez, the study’s lead author told Fox, “We observed that those in the lowest category of television viewing, those who watched television less than one hour a day, they have a very low risk for mortality. However, those who watched more than three hours of television per day fared much worse – and had more than twice the risk of premature death compared to participants who watched less than one hour.” But sitting on the computer and driving did not cause higher earlier death rates at all.

Dr. Gonzalez commented about which results surprised him,

“We expected to find some association of higher mortality related to higher time driving or computer use, but found nothing. Only for television watching, and it was stronger than we expected. We think that computer use or driving are not so sedentary because, in fact, you are using your muscles to move your hands, you have muscle tension and stress. Also if you are working with the computer or driving, you feel responsible for what you are doing, whereas if you are watching television you have no responsibility for what’s going on whatsoever. The other reason we think television watching may be associated with higher mortality rate is a lot of time watching television every day could be a marker of isolation, being a lonely person with very little social support. This is a proxy for isolation. So if you have low social support, your mortality risk is higher many times.”

The study reinforces the idea that social activity is important for living a longer and healthier life.

Does the study mean that you should completely cut out watching TV?

No, there is no need to go to that kind of extreme level. Basically, experts are saying to lead a more balanced lifestyle, where you watch less TV and get more physical activity. Time magazine says, “The reality is that there’s nothing coming out of the TV that is going to kill you, but sitting in front of the TV for hours on end means you are basically not moving at all. We already know that sitting for prolonged periods is really bad for your health, and TV is one of the most common ways to forget about exercise.”

How much TV is too much though? Where should you draw the line in your daily TV watching routine?

Some people have difficulty setting limits, particularly when they have become accustomed to a particular routine. Dr. Gonzalez gave Fox news some guidelines that people can follow, “There is nothing bad in watching television, nothing wrong, unless you spend four or five hours a day doing it. In so far as you watch television for a while, two to two-and-a-half hours a day, this is perfect, no association, and no significant increase in risk for those categories. Only when there are three or more hours a day.” What does the American Academy of Pediatrics Recommend? They say children should watch TV for a maximum of two hours per day and it would benefit adults to follow the same standard.

Every expert is emphasizing the importance of getting more exercise. So, around how much exercise should you be getting on a weekly basis? “The American Heart Association says it recommends people get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week,” according to Time. That averages out to just fifteen minutes of jogging per day, five days a week, which is actually quite manageable for anyone who does not have a health issue that limits them from vigorous exercise.

TV watching is an extremely common activity across the United States. It is the main pastime activity in the evening at most households. You might be surprised to know just how much television the average American watches every day. CBS reports, “The average American adult spends about four and a half hours a day watching TV and that's more than enough to take a toll on their health and longevity. The study authors cited previous research suggesting that about half of U.S. adults are leading sedentary lifestyles.”

Many experts are endorsing the results of the study. Dr. Ayoob of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York commented on the research telling CBS,

“It draws attention to the hazards of sedentary behavior. One of the reasons for the negative impact of too much time watching TV may be that this particular activity encourages people to eat too much at the same time, he speculated, which may affect their overall health. It (watching TV) is very compatible with mindless eating and mindless snacking. It may be that TV viewing is a marker of a particular lifestyle. Be more active, but also be less sedentary, take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever they can, for example. There may be a benefit to doing mundane chores, such as cleaning or doing laundry. Instead of paying someone to do that for you, do stuff yourself.”

Experts also suggest not keeping chips and other processed snack foods out of the house altogether if you genuinely want to avoid snacking while watching TV; or you could switch to healthier snacks such as vegetables and fruit.

Is too much TV linked to other health problems as well? Dr. Gonzalez and his team plan to do more research this year to find out whether too much TV is also linked to cancer, heart attacks and other serious health problems. 

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Gerry Oginski
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