How Watching Too Much TV Really Affects Your Health

There's really nothing like an unfettered Netflix binge when you need to unwind, and doing this once in a while is probably more cathartic than harmful. But what happens to your body when most of your days entail answering "yes" to the dreaded pop-up question "Are you still watching?" 

Experts classify binge-watching as watching more than three hours of TV in a single sitting (via Everyday Health). And if you're from the United States, you're more likely than almost anyone else to be guilty of doing this. In fact, a third of Americans between 18 and 35 years old do this regularly, and Netflix metrics show that Americans tend to finish an entire television series in less than a week.

Studies have shown that there are different types of binge watchers, ranging from occasional to habitual, meaning that while some will only engage in three or more hours of TV watching once in a while, others do it regularly. As you might expect, like most things that are better in moderation, it is those who are classified as "habitual bingers" that tend to suffer the most consequences.

How too much TV hurts your body

The first way bingeing TV can be harmful is due to the sedentary nature of the activity. For the most part, while we are viewing hours of TV, we are sitting on our couches or lounging in bed. Further, we are less engaged mentally and physically while lounging and consuming entertainment than we are while sitting at a desk, working. This is the difference between active and non-active sitting.

Non-active sitting, which is what most of us do while watching TV, has been linked to 25 percent higher body mass index (BMI) and also higher body fat in young adults. It even contributes to the occurrence of metabolic syndrome according to the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Another issue that crops up with TV bingeing is that while we watch, we often snack, and not always on healthy foods. We are all guilty of having vegged out watching TV with a bag of chips in our lap.

The issue is, if we eat chips while paying attention to what we are eating, we are likely to eat less of them. However, when we eat while watching TV, it is usually "distraction eating," which means we aren't paying attention to our actual level of hunger or the portions we are consuming. So, we just keep eating. Distraction eating is directly associated with consuming more food and being overweight, per the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Need to sleep? Shut off the TV

Watching TV right before bed can actually have a negative impact on both quantity and quality of your sleep (via Reverie). Once again, Americans are the worst about this; a whopping 90 percent of us admit to watching something on a screen in the hour before bed. Interestingly, 60 percent of us also report some type of sleep issue. Are the two related? Maybe.

Our bodies and brains just weren't built for this screen-related behavior. All screens are backlit, and so when we engage with them in the hour before bed, we confuse our brains into thinking it's daytime. Studies have shown that looking at screens in the hour before bed reduces the secretion of the hormone melatonin by over 20 percent (via Applied Ergonomics). Melatonin is the hormone that helps to make us sleepy. Also, watching TV engages our minds in a way that makes us want to stay up and watch the rest of the episode or just one more. In this way, watching TV before bed encourages us to stay up later than we otherwise might (via Health).

Further, according to Buffer, doing anything in bed other than winding down to sleep (like doing work, answering texts, eating, or watching TV) over time sends the message to our minds and bodies that bed isn't necessarily for sleep, and so we might find it harder to fall asleep than if we automatically associate crawling into bed with dozing off by reserving our bedrooms for that purpose.

Too much TV can affect your mental health, too

And let's not forget our mental health. According to Everyday Health, binge-watching TV can become a substitute for social interaction and can lead to social isolation. This can happen in a cycle; people who are stuck inside may turn to the TV for company and entertainment, and at first it helps to alleviate the loneliness. But eventually, the desire to actually interact meaningfully with other actual people can decrease, because they start to feel that the TV is sufficient company and that their needs are being met. 

This also relates to another mental health issue that can come of too much TV bingeing: addiction. In the same way that some people can experience potentially addicting things but only use them occasionally (like alcohol, gambling, etc.) while others become dependent, habitual TV bingers can become addicted to the behavior. The pleasure centers of the brain are stimulated in a way that is calming and joy-inducing when we watch a show we enjoy. While most of us can enjoy that feeling and then go about the rest of our lives, others become dependent on TV to help them feel happy and relaxed, and this addiction can interfere with their ability to live a normal and healthy life. 

So, at the end of the day, no one is telling you to give up your favorite shows! We are just reminding you that like all good things, moderation is key to enjoying all the wonders Netflix has to offer without damaging your health or well-being.