Binge-watching our favourite shows has been made possible by media services such as Netflix. But does too much time spent binge-watching affect your health?
“Are you still watching House of Cards?” This question pops up on the screen after you watch a few episodes in a row on Netflix. Many of us are answering “yes.” Binge-watching TV programs has become commonplace, especially during the winter months when we seek the warm comfort of indoors. But what does this mean for our health?
What is binge-watching?
In a 2013 Netflix survey, the majority of respondents defined binge-watching as “watching between two to six episodes of the same TV show in one sitting.” Almost two-thirds of viewers admitted to doing this regularly.
According to cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, we can thank three main factors for the boom in binge-watching behaviour:
- better TV shows
- an uncertain economic climate
- streaming media services such as Netflix and Hulu
“I think people are binge-watching because there are suddenly lots of really good shows,” says McCracken. “The typical binge is two or three episodes. And this is roughly the way we read novels. We like diving into a good story.”
So what’s the problem?
Researchers are taking a closer look at the physical and mental health effects of watching TV for hours on end.
For the body
Sedentary lifestyles in general are associated with obesity and heart disease, but TV-watching may be worse than other sitting-centric behaviours.
A study of more than 10,000 Spanish students found that those who watched TV for at least three hours daily had double the risk of early death compared to those who watched for less than one hour a day. In the same study, activities like driving or computer use were not significantly associated with early death. Although many factors contribute to mortality and more research is needed, these findings may relate to the fact that watching TV often involves motionless sitting—unlike driving, which requires some muscle use.
In addition, mindless overeating is common when we watch TV, and staring at screens can wreak havoc on our sleep-regulating circadian rhythms.
For the brain
The results of one recent study won’t surprise anyone who finds TV relaxing after a stressful day. Participants who felt depressed or lonely were more likely to watch multiple episodes of a show, though it’s unclear if TV causes or alleviates these feelings. The researchers also associated binge-watching with a lack of control—sometimes we can’t help clicking “next episode” even when we have other tasks to complete.
Your action plan
There’s no need to bid a permanent goodbye to Girls. Follow these steps to make your TV habits healthier.
Step 1: Set a one-episode limit.
Consider stopping during a lull in the action rather than at the end, when there will likely be a cliffhanger.
Binge-watching is encouraged, perhaps, by streaming services automatically playing consecutive episodes. You might want to disable the autoplay feature altogether; to do this in Netflix, simply adjust the playback settings under “Your Account.”
Step 2: Choose a funny or complex show.
Research suggests that all TV is not created equal. Certain programs may stimulate our minds and boost our moods more than others. Here’s the honour roll.
- Comedies make us laugh, stimulating muscles and the release of feel-good endorphins. One study suggests we’re less likely to overeat if we watch a feel-good show.
- Complex or political shows such as Lost can encourage thoughtfulness and receptiveness to new ideas.
Educational programs such as nature documentaries may increase empathy and decrease stress.
On the other hand, you might want to skip some types of reality TV. Surveillance shows such as Jersey Shore can distort our views of reality by playing up gender stereotypes, aggression, and turbulent romances. Reality weight-loss programs may be the biggest problem. A 2015 study of young Australian women found that, after watching this type of show, some women were more likely to feel dissatisfied with their bodies.
Step 3: Turn on the lights.
Sure, dimming the lights lends a cinema-like vibe to your living room. But staring at a starkly lit screen in a dark room can strain the eyes. Reducing eyestrain may be as simple as lighting the area around your TV. Researchers found that this not only reduced people’s visual discomfort and general fatigue, but also quickened their brain’s responses to visual cues.
Step 4: Snack smart.
It’s easy to snack mindlessly when we’re consumed with what’s happening on screen. In fact, researchers suggest we tend to eat more when watching engrossing action shows. Instead of salty, sugary, processed fare, fill up on healthy foods that contain carbs for energy and protein for satiety:
- fresh or dried fruit and nuts
- Greek yogurt with muesli
- hummus and veggies
- air-popped popcorn
Step 5: Take exercise breaks.
Streaming media lacks built-in commercial breaks, so this is where willpower comes in. Take a few minutes mid-episode to stretch, jump, squat, lunge, or jog on the spot.
Even short bursts of exercise can have a big impact on our health. A 2014 study found that a 10-minute exercise routine that included just one minute of intense exercise three times per week improved participants’ endurance and lowered their blood pressure.
Step 6: Banish screens from the bedroom.
Keep your sleeping area free of all screens, including sleep-disrupting laptops, tablets, and phones. If you’re watching TV on a tablet in the evening, turn down the screen’s brightness as much as possible. To really promote healthy sleep, end TV time at least 30 minutes before your ideal bedtime.
Winter is here. But that doesn’t mean we need to hibernate inside with the latest season of Game of Thrones. Let’s channel Jon Snow and get outdoors for some real action and adventure. Snowball fight, anyone?
Word of the Year runner-up
In 2013, “binge-watch” was one of seven runners-up for Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. “Selfie” reigned as the 2013 champ.
4 Supplements for Healthy Sight
Our eyes endure a lot of abuse, with many of us working in front of screens before heading home to catch up on our must-watch shows. Here are some nutrients to nourish and protect your vision.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are mighty antioxidants that shield our eyes from light damage and can help fend off cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Available as supplements and in greens such as kale and spinach, they might even improve vision.
Omega-3 fatty acids may help relieve dry eyes—a common byproduct of staring at a screen for too long—by reducing inflammation. Reap their benefits through fish oil supplements and a diet rich in salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
Vitamin E is another antioxidant that can protect eye cells from tissue-damaging free radicals. Take a daily vitamin E supplement (and eat plenty of almonds and sweet potatoes) to help delay the progression of AMD and cataracts.