Want to Live Longer? Turn Off Your TV

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Sitting in front of the television may be a relaxing way to pass an evening, but spending too much time in front of the tube may take years off your life.

That’s what Australian researchers found when they generated life-expectancy tables for people based on mortality information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics as well as participants’ survey responses about how much TV they had watched in the past week.

The TV-viewing data from more than 11,000 participants older than 25 years showed that Australian adults watched an estimated 9.8 billion hours of television in 2008. People who watched an average six hours of TV a day lived an average 4.8 years fewer than those who didn’t watch any television, the study found.

Even more humbling: every hour of TV that participants watched after age 25 was associated with a 22-minute reduction in their life expectancy.

(MORE: Too Much TV Linked with Disease and Early Death)

The findings suggest that watching too much TV is as detrimental to longevity as smoking and lack of exercise. Previous research has shown that smoking is associated with a four-year reduction in life expectancy after the age of 50. That works out to an average 11 minutes of life lost for every cigarette smoked — the equivalent to 30 minutes of TV time, according to the current study.

The study notes also that people who report low levels of physical activity lose nearly 1.5 years in life expectancy compared with those who exercise a moderate amount, an effect similar to that of watching just over two hours of television a day.

“The strong correlation is a bit of a surprise,” said lead author Lennert Veerman of the University of Queensland in an e-mail response to questions about his research, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. “It suggests that going from inactive to slightly active is as important as exercise.”

It’s no mystery that sitting in front of the tube isn’t exactly a healthy pursuit. The more TV you watch, the less physically active you are. And the less exercise you get, the more likely you are to develop diseases such as diabetes or heart problems.

But while previous studies have hinted at the potentially deadly impact of too much TV watching — in June, a Harvard study found that for every two hours of TV watched, people’s risk of dying from any cause increased 13% over a seven-year period — the new analysis was the first to translate the effect of TV viewing to life expectancy at birth.

Were it not for TV, researchers estimated that life expectancy for men would be 1.8 years longer and for women, 1.5 years longer.

(MORE: Even a Little Bit of Exercise Goes a Long Way)

Veerman acknowledges that it may not just be the sedentary nature of watching TV that lowers life expectancy but also the poor diet that onscreen junk-food advertising can promote. Still, the association between excess TV viewing and lower life expectancy persisted, even after adjusting for diet, Veerman says.

He says it might make sense for doctors to start asking their patients about how much time they spend in front of the TV and to treat TV time as they would other risk factors for poor health, such as lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet.

Also, Veerman notes, the dangers of TV viewing can easily be neutralized by simply turning off the TV and getting off the couch. “Exercise is good,” he says, “but even light physical activity also improves health.”

MORE: Just 15 Minutes of Exercise a Day May Add Years to Your Life

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

2 comments
catsmeow1310
catsmeow1310

This is an old thread but since I just read it I wanted to comment that you make an excellent point. Too often the viewing/reading public takes media claims at face value and makes wildly incorrect assumptions as a result. You point to two variables; there are probably many more that could effect the outcome of the research or its conclusions. We need more critical thinkers in the U.S.--yet another reason to turn off the #$%^ TV!!

MarnishiaJernigan
MarnishiaJernigan

The article says that researchers have found a correlation between time spent watching tv and life expectancy. From that it assumes that correlation shows causation. In my psychology class, we learned that correlation does not equal causation. There is always the possibility of a third variable affecting the data. For instance, it may be that people that have more time to watch television may not have full time jobs that allow them to make enough money to live the healthiest lifestyles and this may lead to the lower life expectancy. There is also the possibility that the people that choose to watch more television may be people that are less likely to care about their health and less likely to exercise or eat healthy foods.