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What the Latest Research Says About Watching TV and Getting Fat

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"Watch less TV" is common popular advice for losing weight. The reasons why seem pretty straightforward and intuitive: The first thing you think of is that most people easily eat more in front of the TV. Second, watching TV is totally sedentary time.

On the latter note, major health and fitness organizations have recently been making strong recommendations in their position stands and opinion statements to "reduce sedentary behaviors," and they point out that this is totally separate and distinct from "increase activity" or "exercise more."

People are always looking for easy ways to help them lose weight. Well, slash your TV watching dramatically, and you will almost always lose weight as a result. Replace that TV time with activity, even as simple as walking, and if all else remains equal weight loss is a sure thing. No-brainer easy.

A recent study from Brigham Young University took a close look at the actual pathways leading to increased food intake and reduced physical activity among TV watchers.[1] Obviously, they started by talking about the two primary pathways to weight gain:

1. TV watching may lead to obesity through increased calorie intake.
2. TV watching may lead to obesity through decreased calorie expenditure.

Next, because those are simply the two general paths to energy imbalance, they wanted to investigate the specific mechanisms. They included investigations as to whether:

  • You may eat more because your hands are free and little else is happening
  • TV advertisements for high-fat, high-sugar foods trigger increased food intake
  • Increased TV watching time (sitting) tends to displace activity and exercise. (And TV watchers claim they don't have time to exercise.)
  • TV watching, being totally passive and sedentary, may decrease arousal and energy levels so you are less likely to go out and exercise after a long session of watching TV (unless you're watching something pretty darn motivating).
  • Sleep deprivation or disrupted circadian rhythms can happen due to late-night TV watching, and both are linked to hormonal mechanisms of increased hunger and even reduced lean body mass.
  • Frequent TV watching often correlates with an overall unhealthy lifestyle

I also think it's worth mentioning that watching TV can be a very strong anchor or trigger to eat. Remember classical conditioning back in Psychology 101 class? Pair a stimulus with a behavior long enough and they become linked. If you eat in front of the TV habitually, then eventually every time you sit in front of the TV (the trigger/anchor), you'll feel like eating. The worst part: It can become habitual and completely unconscious.

Getting back to the study, in a group of 300 women, these were the results:

  • 60.7 percent of frequent TV viewers (three or more hours per day) were obese
  • 33.7 percent of moderate viewers (two hours per day) were obese
  • 30.6 percent of infrequent viewers (one hour or less per day) were obese

I wonder about the people who watch for four hours or more per day? Do you know anyone who watches four or more hours per day? What do you think is the national average? For kids? For adults? Food for thought.

It's important to note that all of this research is survey-based. Therefore, these results only show associations or correlations. (There are plenty of lean people who watch TV moderately or even frequently.) Nevertheless, these results should not be taken lightly or dismissed, because the associations between frequent TV watching and obesity are significant.

"Watch less TV" is the type of simple behavior change advice that makes people say, "Yeah, yeah, I know that." But if you work a desk job AND you surf the internet a lot AND you watch a lot of TV, it's imperative that you pay attention to these messages and start to take some action on reducing sedentary behavior -- especially because of how much this influences long-term maintenance. Weight loss is easy. Long-term weight maintenance is another story...

A previous study from the State University of New York, based on the National Weight Control Registry (aka the NWCR, the largest group of long-term large weight loss maintainers that has been followed statistically for years), looked at the effect of TV viewing on weight maintenance.[2]

Researchers Rena Wing, James Hill and D.A. Raynor studied 1,422 participants enrolled in the NWCR and found that 62.3 percent of long term weight loss maintainers watched less than 10 hours per week of TV; 36.1 percent of the sample watched less than five hours per week and only 12.4 percent watched 21 hours or more per week.

The NWCR says spending large amounts of time watching TV is a significant predictor of weight regain, over a one year follow up, independent of activity and dietary behaviors.

If you watch even one hour of TV per day, never, ever say, "I don't have time for exercise." If a person has time for any TV but says they have no time for exercise, he or she has a case of mixed-up priorities. They also get little sympathy for any slow or non-existent fat loss progress, because one simple solution is right at their fingertips (clicking the OFF button on the remote control).

If you absolutely will not cut your TV time below two hours a day, here's a suggestion: Get a treadmill, bike or other piece of equipment and park it in front of the TV and park yourself on it. I admit it, I have some shows I like to watch and counting movies too, I probably watch more now than I did when I was younger. However, I have a bike in front of my TV #1 and a StairMaster in front of my TV #2.

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References:

[1] Television viewing and obesity in 300 women: evaluation of the pathways of energy intake and physical activity. Tucker LA, Tucker JM. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Oct;19(10):1950-6. Department of Exercise Sciences, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.

[2] Television viewing and long-term weight maintenance: results from the National Weight Control Registry.Raynor DA, Phelan S, Hill JO, Wing RR. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2006 Oct;14(10):1816-24. Department of Psychology, The State University of New York at Geneseo, 1 College Circle, Geneseo, NY 14454, USA.

Tom Venuto is a fat loss expert, natural bodybuilder and author of The Body Fat Solution (Avery/Penguin Books). Tom on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/burnthefat

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