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“Just One More Episode…” Could Binge Watching Harm Your Health?

Published: April 6, 2021

Does this sound familiar? You settle in with your popcorn, intending to watch an episode of a favorite TV show before bedtime. But then, you’re dying to find out what happens next, so you watch the next episode…and then maybe the next. Before long, you’ve lost the chance for the eight hours of sleep you were planning!

Not so long ago, we had to wait a week for that next episode. But these days, we have at our fingertips a whole season or even multiple seasons of a limitless number of TV series. And scientists have been studying binge-watching.

Dr. Randall Wright of Houston Methodist Hospital describes it like this: “When you let autoplay start the next episode so you can find out what happens in the cliffhanger, your brain receives positive feedback. This instant gratification is similar to gambling, where even after a win, you are not satisfied and want to continue playing—or in this case, you are not satisfied with stopping after episode five and want to continue watching.”

And Dr. Wright made that statement in 2019—before the constraints of the pandemic drove even more of us onto our couches for the evening!

But is this effect exclusive to binge-watching? What’s the difference between watching a whole season of “The Crown,” versus 10 random hours of TV, or maybe four feature films?

For one thing, binge-watching affects not only the quantity of our sleep but also the quality. University of Michigan experts have found that binge-watching makes it hard to settle down at night. Our heart beats harder, and we have heightened mental alertness, explains study author Liese Exelmans. “Bingeable TV shows have plots that keep the viewer tied to the screen. They become intensely involved with the content, and may keep thinking about it when they want to go to sleep,” she says.

Beyond the effect on our sleep, spending hours on the couch might mean:

We get less exercise. Prolonged sitting is very bad for our bodies. A lot of attention has been paid to the negative effects of a desk job—but numerous studies show that watching TV is even worse. The American Medical Association says that people who watch more than three hours of TV each day are at higher risk of disability and a shorter life.

We eat more, later, and poorly. People tend to snack on quick, high-calorie foods while they’re watching TV, rather than taking the time to prepare a healthy meal. “TV watching occurs at the end of the day where individuals may consume their biggest meal, and people may be completely sedentary with hours of uninterrupted sitting until they go to bed,” Jeanette Garcia, Ph.D., told the American Heart Association. “Eating a large meal and then sitting hours at a time could be a very harmful combination.”

Our brains are slacking. Watching TV is a passive activity, and doesn’t give our mind much of a workout compared to more interactive mental stimulation—such as reading, which requires the brain to form pictures and make connections.

So, reconsider how you spend your leisure hours. Mix up TV programs by listening to music or dancing. Go for a walk. Read a book. And make up for all that sitting with extra exercise. Garcia’s study found that if we get about 150 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, that can help offset the effects of all that couch time. You might even work out with weights or on a treadmill while you watch.

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