6 Ways binge-watching TV is waging war on your body

Feb 24, 2015 at 7:30 a.m. ET
Image: Robin Reyes/Flickr

Ready to binge watch the next season of your favorite television show?

A recent study found that the more lonely and depressed you are, the more likely you are to binge-watch — or watch several episodes of television shows in one sitting.

Clarification: The study didn't say that binge-watching will make you feel depressed, out of control or lonely — digesting a season of Orange Is the New Black in a few days makes me happy, in fact — but, the study showed a connection between feeling lonely when we endlessly watch the tube. Come to think of it, I do get a little bummed when I realize I have to wait several months to see new episodes of the show... maybe that's the connection?

Dr. Robert F. Potter, director of the Institute for Communication Research at Indiana University, said in an article that our brains go into an addictive-like state when we watch television due to their orienting responses. This is what continuously grabs our attention, making it so hard to turn off the television.

In fact, a study in the Journal of Advertising Research showed that feel-good brain chemicals — endorphins — run wild during almost any addictive, habit-forming behavior. They continue to pour in so long as we watch, making it hard to shut the tube off.

Thinking of devouring all of Friends, which Netflix so kindly recently released? Consider these health hazards when binge-watching.

1. It could make you depressed

The aforementioned study involved conducting a survey on 316 respondents who were between 18 and 29 years old. The researchers found that the more depressed and lonely the participants were, they more likely they were to watch shows back-to-back... also known as binge-watching.

They found that those who did not have as much self-control were more likely to binge-watch — they simply were unable to stop clicking on to the next episode. Netflix has an autoplay function that starts another episode 15 seconds after one has ended, which probably doesn’t help.

2. You may gain weight

A study last year found that watching television was linked to binge-eating. So, you may sit down to watch your favorite show and wind up eating more than you’d like. Some ideas to combat that are to portion out healthier foods or to rule out eating while you watch television. (Hint: Another study found that action movies make us nosh more.)

Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a weight loss specialist from Philadelphia, confirms watching television for extended periods of time significantly lowers metabolic rate. "If you're on the couch watching TV, you're probably not exercising at the same time, creating a health double whammy," he told SheKnows.

Dr. Christopher Ochner, an obesity and nutrition expert at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said binge-watching makes us sedentary so we burn fewer calories than we would if we were walking around or even standing.

"If we do this [stay sedentary] often enough, we will actually begin to lose muscle mass, which will be replaced by fat," he said. "The other side of it is that we tend to snack much more when we’re in front of the TV and it’s typically not fruit and veggies."

3. It could give you cancer or heart disease

A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association looked at data from more than 13,000 healthy Spanish university graduates for a median of 8.2 years, they found that 19 died from cardiovascular causes, 46 from cancer and 32 from other causes. The risk of early death was twice as high for people who said they watched three or more hours of television per day compared to those who tuned in less.

"TV viewing is related to a bunch of poor physical markers, including caloric consumption and lack of physical activity," Ochner said. "So cutting down on TV viewing, particularly binge-watching, would have multiple benefits."

4. It could be connected to infertility

A 2013 study of 189 men ages 18 to 22 found that men who tuned into 20 hours of television or more per week had only half as many sperm as those who watched less. It also found that men who worked out 15 hours or more a week at a moderate to vigorous level had a 73 percent higher sperm count than those did not exercise as much. Something for your guy to think about.

5. It could harm your children

Countless studies warn parents to limit their children’s television viewing time. If your children see you binge-watching House of Cards, they may follow suit and become glued to the tube, too. (Though, hopefully not to the same show.)

A study in JAMA found that about 40 percent of three-month old children and about 90 percent of children under the age of 2 regularly watch television, DVDs or videos.

When parents used a monitoring device to limit the time they view media by 50 percent less over a two-year period, it lowered calorie intake, body mass index and sedentary behavior in kids ages 4 to 7.

6. It may numb pain

Television could be numbing your pain — physical or emotional. A study out of Princeton University and Stony Brook University found that people in pain spent about 25 percent of their time watching television, compared to 16 percent of people not in pain.

Numb your pain and you may not be in touch with important signals your body is sending you — that could lead to all sorts of health issues.

Despite knowing all of us, many of us still are content to loaf on the couch to catch up on Game of Thrones or relive Sex and The City.

A recent Netflix survey of about 1,500 American adults who streamed television shows at least once a week found that 61 percent tuned in regularly. Of them, 73 percent said they defined binge-watching as watching anywhere from two to six episodes of the same show in one sitting.

Can binge-watching be healthy... or can we make it so? Maybe, Ochner said.

"Binge-watch at the gym on the StairMaster with your iPad. It works,” Ochner said. “Otherwise, make a deal with yourself to only snack on fruit when in front of the TV.”

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