It’s the go-to Friday night – open a bottle of Pinot, order UberEats and settle in for an evening of Breaking Bad.
And all over the country, thousands of others are doing exactly the same thing. Over 1.2 million Kiwis tuned into Netflix in 2017 according to Nielsen, and another 810,000 to its main competitor, Lightbox. Through pay-to-view and free-to-view TV, we’re watching an average 23 hours per person a week of content, according to Newshub. That’s almost one whole day per week spent in front of the box.
There’s no doubt that the arrival of Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) has brought us a better line-up of shows than we’ve seen in years, but all this bingeing does beg the question – is our love of TV actually doing us any good?
It’s making us fat (and unhealthy)
Zoning out for a few hours in front of Mad Men is certainly a great way to unwind, but it’s not such great news for our waistline, says dietician Helen Gibbs. “The research shows that long periods of inactivity is really bad for our health. There is growing evidence that this (sitting) increases the amount of fat we put on our abdomen, which can lead to the development of insulin resistance and elevated blood pressure.”
The studies bear this out. An English study of 8,114 adults found that over half of people between 18 and 98 (51.1%) spent 2 or more hours per day watching TV or another kind of screen and almost a third (30.9 %) watched for 3 hours or more. Watching TV for 2 or more hours was linked with a higher likelihood of endocrine or metabolic disorders, diabetes, mental disorders, nervous system disorders, eye complaints, circulatory system disorders, respiratory system disorders and musculoskeletal system disorders. Scary stuff, right?
Hit the gym every day? Don’t be so smug just yet. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine of nearly 8000 adults found that it doesn’t matter how much you work out, sitting for excessively long periods is a risk factor for early death. So even if you go for a run every day, a couple of hours on the couch could undo all that hard work.
It makes us crave junk food
Ever sat down in front of the box with a salad? Probably not. TV goes with pizza like beer at barbecue. Whether it’s chips, icecream or Thai takeaways, whatever your snack of choice, it’s likely to contain a hefty amount of fat, salt and sugar.
Snacking in front of the box also stops us being aware of how much we’re eating – a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead and it’s easy to chow your way through a family-sized bag of Doritos or a half block of chocolate. Eating while distracted is a recipe for over-eating.
And even if you thought you weren’t hungry when you flicked on the TV, you pretty soon will be, because food placement and advertising in the programmes we’re watching can actually make us crave junk food without us even being aware of it, says Helen “If we think about what we know about advertising and product placement in movies and on television, it’s likely that the programmes we’re watching could be affecting our food choices (often without us being aware of it)”. Watch a travel journo meandering Venice’s piazzas with a gelato, and it won’t be long before you’re craving icecream too.
It’s stopping us sleeping
Stranger Things is keeping us awake at night. And it’s not just because it’s creepy.
With so many of us now watching content on devices like iPads and laptops, we’re exposed to increasingly high levels of blue light, which can disrupt our sleep cycle, meaning when we finally do press shut down, we find it really difficult to wind down. Exposure to blue light at night seems to reduce our secretion of melatonin, the hormone which helps regulate circadian rhythms and allow us to fall asleep. While light of any kind can affect melatonin levels, blue light does so more powerfully. Researchers at Harvard Medical School conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light to the same amount green light. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).
This lack of sleep has wide-ranging and significant impacts on our physical and psychological wellbeing, says Helen “We know that blue light exposure has a big impact on our sleep – and it’s not only our phones that emit blue light, but the devices that we watch Netflix on …. The psychological and physical consequences of that lack of sleep are very concerning.”
One of those consequences is an increase in the size of our waistline, says Helen. “We know that poor quality and short sleep increases the stress hormones in our body that cause us to gain weight around our middle.”
Once again, the science backs this up. A study by the University of Chicago School of Medicine showed a link between lack of sleep and higher levels of cortisol, our stress hormone which promotes the storage of fat around the abdomen. One significant study published in BMC Public Health found that sleeping for less than six hours per night is linked with an increase in waist circumference.
There’s another reason late nights make us fat – lack of sleep increases our levels of ghrelin, a hormone which regulates appetite. It’s ghrelin which drives us to dig into a mega muffin the morning after a bad sleep, or a choccy bar at 3pm. Ghrelin also promotes fat storage, so it’s a double whammy for weight-gain – when we don’t sleep enough, we not only want to eat more, we also store fat more easily.
It’s making us stressed
At the end of a massive week, zoning out in front of The Good Place seems like the ideal way to wind down. Reality is, switching on the box isn’t helping us switch off.
Adult-life involves an almost distressingly long list of jobs – both at the office and outside of it – and although you can block out those responsibilities for an hour or two, they haven’t actually disappeared. The hours you’re spending watching science docos is time not spent mowing the lawns, hitting the gym, getting groceries or any of the other million tasks on your to-do list. The things we’re not getting done while we’re zoning out can actually cause us stress and anxiety, as we know we still need to get around them at some point.
It’s bad for our backs
With many of us watching on our laptops or curled up in bed, all that screen time is bad news for our backs too, Osteopath Chris Bennett says.
“Most people work in sedentary jobs – whether it’s at desk or driving, they sit at a computer or in a vehicle for 8-plus hours at a time, so if then during their recreation time they sit looking at some sort a screen, it’s really bad for our spinal health – and our overall health.”
Slouching for long periods can weaken our back and postural muscles, leading to muscle imbalances, discomfort and pain. But TV binge sesh’s are only part of the picture, Chris stresses, “We drive to work, we sit all day at our desks, then we spend our leisure time sitting down. We’re too sedentary and we need to move more – that’s the real issue.”
So is there a safe level of viewing?
If all this talk has got you thinking about cutting down on how much content you watch, is there a safe level of bingeing you can do? While there’s no formal recommendations on this yet, both Helen and Chris recommend being sensible. “ I’d have the view that it’s very much like having takeaways,” says Helen “What we do on an occasional basis is fine, but if it’s becoming a regular thing, you probably want to think about it. I’d say two hours a day maximum.”
Most health authorities agree, recommending a maximum of two hours of screen time a day outside of work (that means TV, phones and tablets). So if it’s a wet day and there’s nothing better to do than while a way five or six hours on Suits, you better really cut back your screen time for the rest of the week.
If you’re gonna invest a few hours catching up on the latest season of your favourite show, Chris suggests getting up to move around in between each episode, “Workplace Health and Safety recommends getting up every 40 minutes, so I’d say a good rule of thumb is to make sure you get up and move around for at least 5-10 minutes every time you finish watching an episode. Get up and move that blood around your body.”
And maybe make some weekend plans that don’t involve a remote.