After a long, hard day, many of us push back from the dinner table and settle in to watch our favorite evening television programs. While the montage of sitcoms, reality shows, dramas and game shows allow us to decompress from the day’s events, this modern pastime has a decidedly darker side.
And no, we’re not talking about whether Simon Cowell has had Botox, or whether Hines Ward will drop his dancing partner on her head again. We’re talking about how prolonged sitting and/or lying while watching television affects our cardiovascular health. In short, it’s not healthy. And the more time we spend watching TV, the worse our cardiovascular health becomes.
For example, a new study published last month revealed that for each one-hour increase in daily television viewing hours, the risk of developing cardiovascular disease rose by 6 percent. Conversely, for each one-hour reduction in daily television viewing, cardiovascular disease risk declined by 6 percent.
Further, according to the same study, each one-hour increase in television viewing time increased the risk of developing coronary heart disease by 8 percent, and each one-hour decrease in TV time lowered coronary heart disease risk by 8 percent.
In the study, researchers examined the diagnostic health assessments and self-reported lifestyle behaviors, including television viewing time, of more than 12,000 British adults (aged 45-79) who enrolled in a large, long-term health study known as EPIC (European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition) between 1993 and 1997. In 2000, the study subjects again participated in diagnostic health evaluations and completed lifestyle behavior questionnaires. Finally, in 2007, study subjects were assessed for incidences of cardiovascular disease, chronic heart disease and cardiovascular-related deaths.
The research team conducting the television/cardiovascular risk study then examined the wide range of data gathered over the 10-14 year period for statistical correlations between cardiovascular disease development and television viewing hours.
While the study was based on U.K. adults, the results are highly relevant to U.S. adults given that the average American spends nearly five hours per day watching TV, according to the media market research firm Nielsen.
What’s particularly interesting about this study’s results is that the research team found no statistically significant difference in television-viewing-related cardiovascular disease risk when looking at people of different ages, gender, education level, smoking status, alcohol consumption level or current health status. The same increase in cardiovascular and heart disease risk was present regardless of what other health risk factor was introduced. This led the researchers to conclude that television viewing time was an independent predictor of cardiovascular disease risk.
The TV/Heart Connection
So what’s behind the connection between TV and cardiovascular disease?
Television viewing is a highly sedentary behavior. When we idly sit for extended periods of time, we experience the double whammy of a reduction in calories burned and a reduction in the use of our muscles, joints and cardiovascular/respiratory systems. Many research studies have shown that this lethal combination leads to the development of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis and chronic shortness of breath among highly sedentary people.
Indeed, in the TV/cardiovascular risk study, the study subjects who watched television the least had the lowest incidence of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. This “low TV viewing group” also reported the most hours engaged in physical activity of one form or another. In fact, the number of hours engaged in physical activity was nearly 30 percent higher for this group as compared to the group with the highest TV viewing time.
Further, according to the study authors, while watching television we are regularly bombarded with seductive advertisements that consciously or otherwise lead us to consume more salty snacks, confections and calorie-laden beverages. Echoing the findings discussed in the previous paragraph, researchers found that those in the low TV viewing group consumed the greatest amount of fruits and vegetables, and the lowest amount of saturated fats in comparison to study subjects who watched television more frequently.
So prolonged and consistent television viewing lowers our metabolism at the same time we are increasing our calorie consumption while the lack of physical activity weakens our hearts, lungs, muscles and joints. This doesn’t seem like a particularly good recipe for a long and healthy life, does it?
Now, truth be told, the real issue here is the amount of waking time we spend sitting or lying down. If one thinks about it, most of us spend an hour or two each day sitting while commuting to and from work. At work, many of us have professions that involve sitting in front of a computer or in meetings for several additional hours per day. When one layers five hours of television viewing on top of these daily sitting hours, we really are sedentary for most of our waking hours. And with the advent of the Internet, many of us have supplanted online time for television time, and at the end of the day, it’s essentially the same sedentary behavior.
Get Moving, Couch Potatoes
So what’s the remedy?
Well, plain and simple, get up and move around more. Instead of plopping down on the couch right after dinner to watch TV, consider going for an hour-long walk outside. Or, if you can’t see yourself giving up your favorite programs, hop on a treadmill while you’re eyes are glued to the tube. If walking isn’t your thing, try swimming or cycling, or seek out new physical activities that help clear the mind and stimulate the senses like tai chi, yoga or, yes, even ballroom dancing (with or without the stars). Heck, if nothing else, go to the mall and window shop (just avoid the french fry stands).
The point is, if you can replace an hour or two a day of sitting time with at least some form of low-impact movement, you can make a remarkable difference in your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions. Remember, every hour reduction in TV viewing time can reduce your risk of cardiovascular/heart disease by 6 percent to 8 percent. While this may seem like a small amount on the surface, over time it adds up to several additional years lifespan, not to mention greater energy, stamina and sense of well-being.
 Wijndaele K, et al. Television Viewing and Incident Cardiovascular Disease: Prospective Associations and Mediation Analysis in the EPIC Norfolk Study. PLoS ONE. 2011; 6(5): Epub 2011 May 25.
 Television, Internet and Mobile Usage in the U.S. The Nielsen Company A2/M2 Three Screen Report. May 2009.