This 1 Simple Thing May Impact How You Age, Study Finds

This 1 Simple Thing May Impact How You Age, Study Finds
  • New research links TV time with a higher risk of unhealthy aging.

  • Researchers found that people had a 12% drop in odds of aging in a healthy way for every two hours of TV they watched.

  • There are a few things you can do to combat this.

Kicking back and watching TV can be a great way to unwind, but swapping physical activity for TV time may impact how you age. That’s the major takeaway from a new study that found a link between TV time and healthy aging.

For the study, which was published in JAMA Network Open, researchers analyzed health and lifestyle data from the Nurses’ Health Study of more than 45,000 people 50 and older in 1992 and followed up for 20 years. The researchers specifically looked at how much time people spent sitting at work and at home, including watching TV, and how long they stood or walked at home and work. That was then compared with information on how well they aged.

The researchers defined healthy aging as living to at least 70 years and being healthy across at least four categories, including having no major chronic disease, and no issues with subjective memory, physical health, and mental health.

For every two hours of sitting to watch TV, study participants had a 12% drop in the odds that they would age in a healthy way. However, the study also found that having two additional hours of light physical activity at work increased the chances of healthy aging by 6%. People who swapped one hour of sitting and watching TV with light physical activity also were more likely to age in a healthy way.

Why might this be the case, and what can you do to avoid this effect? Experts break it down.

Why might watching TV interfere with healthy aging?

It all comes down to a sedentary lifestyle. Most people sit to watch TV, and this particular study focused on that habit. Sitting has repeatedly been linked to lower levels of health, and even early death.

A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2017 measured sedentary time with a hip accelerometer and found that people who spent the most time sitting had the greatest risk of dying early from any cause. A science advisory from the American Heart Association (AHA) also warned that even people who exercise regularly could be at increased risk for heart disease and stroke if they spend lots of time sitting.

American adults spend an average of six to eight hours a day being sedentary, according to the AHA.

“We have a lot of evidence that spending more time being sedentary is associated with less healthy outcomes,” says Katherine N. Balantekin, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor in the department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the University at Buffalo.

Most people are sedentary when they watch TV, and that replaces potential time that they could spend being active, she says. “It’s known that people who spend more time watching TV also tend to follow other unhealthy behaviors, like unhealthy eating patterns, increased caloric intake, and other things that are linked with increased disease risk,” says Scott Kaiser, M.D., board-certified geriatrician and Director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA.

Sitting for long periods of time also increases the risk of developing blood clots, says Barbara Bawer, M.D., a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Leg swelling can also occur from sitting due to blood pooling in the feet, which can lead to pain and over time, and skin breakdown, which can lead to infection as well,” she says.

It’s not just about sitting—it’s about what you do while sitting, Balantekin says. “There is evidence that people eat more while watching TV and using screens, as they are not able to pay close attention to hunger and fullness cues,” she says. “People also see advertisements for high-energy dense foods and beverages while watching TV, which might alter their purchasing behavior.” Eating those foods regularly raises the odds of developing serious health conditions like type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, which can also impact your ability to age in a healthy way.

How to be more active during the day

If you have a desk job, there’s only so much you can do about the amount of time you spend sitting. However, Balantekin says you can break it up. “Take regular breaks to get up and move around,” she says. “This could look like doing jumping jacks, resistance training, or even just walking in place.”

Dr. Kaiser says you don’t necessarily need to stop watching TV—but you can be more active while you do it. “Get up and walk around during commercial breaks,” he says. You can also be more active while you watch, says Kimberly Prado, D.N.P., clinical associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Nursing. That could mean walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike, if you have them, or doing resistance-training exercises while you watch. “You can still enjoy the movie/Netflix/TV show while your muscles and bones become stronger,” she says. Dr. Kaiser agrees, adding, “even some light physical activity can make a difference.”

Dr. Bawer also offers this advice: “If you want to watch TV, try not to eat while watching it.”

But if you feel the need to eat while you watch TV, Balantekin recommends pre-portioning your foot. “Use a bowl or plate versus just eating directly out of a bigger container,” Balantekin says.

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