It's not exactly news that a couch potato lifestyle is hazardous to health. But a study published June 15 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) illustrates just how self-destructive this behavior can be. A research team from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Southern Denmark analyzed the data from eight studies that included more than 175,000 individuals and found that watching TV for two hours a day (and Americans log a daily average of 5 hours in front of the tube!) raised the risk of type 2 diabetes by 20 percent over 8.5 years, the risk of heart disease by 15 percent over a decade and the risk of dying from any cause by 13 percent during a seven-year follow up. The TV itself isn't directly to blame. The investigators theorize that time spent planted on the couch and the associated eating habits - too much junk food at the expense of fresh fruits and vegetables - are the primary contributors. The research also turned up another bleak reminder of how unhealthy current TV habits are: even among adults who exercised, those who watched the most television were still at higher risk of dying during the study.
My take? I understand the need to unwind after work. I enjoy watching movies at home in the evenings, but I recommend balancing this with health-promoting relaxation techniques, including breath work and exercise, as the best means of reducing the stress in your life. Then there's the issue of eating while watching TV: many people munch habitually and without conscious thought, swallowing food without really tasting it. One consequence of this practice is overeating. Who has not mindlessly shoveled in quantities of popcorn or chips while watching a movie or staring at a television screen? In particular, I worry about the eating habits of kids who watch a lot of television. A study from the University of Minnesota that tracked nearly 2,000 high-school and middle-school teenagers found that high-school kids who watched more than five hours of television per day had poor intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and calcium-rich foods. What's more, those bad habits translated into higher intakes of snack foods, fried foods, fast food, sugar-sweetened beverages and trans-fats five years later. Sadly, the JAMA study suggests that these habits are equally widespread among adults.