4 reasons why watching TV is actually good for you

By: Karen Hawthorne, M.A. | General Health | Friday, November 14, 2014 - 04:28 PM

HEALTH, HEALTH, HEALTH, Here’s the thing: Most everybody likes to watch TV. Depending on the program, it’s informative, provocative, entertaining – or downright silly. You can’t beat those clever sitcom lines that leave you in stitches! Laughter is the best medicine for your health…

Sometimes you’re just in the mood for an episode of Seinfeld, like the one where Kramer takes a car out for a test drive to see how far it will go with the gas gauge to the left of empty.

KRAMER: Listen to me. When that car rolls into that dealership, and that tank is bone dry, I want you to be there with me when everyone says, “Kramer and that other guy, oh, they went further to the left of the slash than anyone ever dreamed!”

TV is one of our most common denominators, the universal language we all share, for the most part, in North America. We can talk about our favorite shows with the mailman, the grocery store clerk, the neighbor next door, our friends and our kids. It’s a medium that crosses all generations.

In fact, the average American home has more TVs than people, according to Nielsen Media Research. Which is good, because there’s less fighting over channels!

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So why is it we hear so much about lounging in front of the boob-tube being bad for us and bad for our health? Can’t we just put our feet up and enjoy?

I’m here to tell you that we can, within reason, and enough with all the scolding and finger-wagging. Here are four good reasons (I’m sure you could think of even more!) to embrace your TV watching – and make it even better for your health…

1. TV is good for your relationships

Make your TV watching a social event. Instead of getting the popcorn all to yourself (air-popped, please, and dusted with Parmesan instead of salt), get out a larger bowl and share it with your spouse or a friend.

Researchers at the University of Rochester recently discovered that watching and talking about feel-good relationship movies is as effective as couples’ therapy. This inexpensive and fun approach to getting along better with your mate could cut the divorce and separation rate in half, according to the psychology researchers.

The idea is that people often have a good idea of what they’re doing right and wrong in their relationship, so watching how the characters interact in romantic movies like As Good As It Gets (with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt) offers a way to identify with and discuss behavior. You can laugh, bond and work to repair any heartbreak or resolve those nagging pet peeves.

The study looked at 124 couples and found that watching and discussing a movie once a week, was just as effective as more intensive skills-building programs. These results suggest that people do have the relationship know-how; they just need reminders to put these skills into practice. How’s that for a health benefit?

2. You can do it just for fun

You can get a lot out of watching TV. It makes us feel part of something, whether it’s watching your favorite drama or the nightly news to see what’s going on in the world. Many studies show that being connected is crucial for our health and happiness.

It’s also a lot of fun watching a game show and weighing in with your own answers, or following the hijinks in an action-packed film.

I remember my grandmother was hooked on Bob Barker’s the Price is Right where audience participants guess prices on groceries and other goods for a chance to move forward to win big prizes. She couldn’t miss that show! Barker, the beloved long-time host, returned to the show last year for an episode to mark his 90th birthday. (TV has been great for his health, too!)

It’s a great outlet, but you don’t want to use watching television as a distraction from stress and feeling upset – like an escape from reality. A health study this year in the journal Sleep found those who tuned in to de-stress were more likely to have insomnia.

Previous health studies have shown that anxiety can cause sleep problems for the short-term, but researchers from the Henry Ford Hospitals Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit wanted to see if and how stress played a role in causing insomnia over the long haul.

They looked at 2,900 men and women and asked them about recent life stressors, such as loss of a spouse or a financial setback, plus how long the stress lasted, how severe it was and how they coped. After one year, the researchers assessed whether any of the participants had insomnia. Those who sidetracked stress, dwelled on it, or avoided dealing with it altogether had higher rates of insomnia.

If you use TV to distract yourself from facing your problems – we’ve all been there – it can take a toll on your sleep and your health. We all need our sleep!

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3. It can improve your focus and waistline

Do you find yourself watching more TV dramas with high-speed police chases? Or slow-moving nature documentaries about dung beetles?

If you’re really engrossed in the show and it stimulates your curiosity, that’s a good thing for your brain. One expert on the topic, George Loewenstein, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, calls curiosity a powerful motivator. It’s what drives us to keep learning, trying, and pushing forward. It’s like body-building for the mind.

An engaging show is also good for your pant size. Scientists have long made the connection between obesity and habitual eating in front of the TV, but a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE looked at food intake and programming content. Researchers found that women snacked 52 percent more during boring shows compared to an engaging comedy show.

The takeaway here is don’t go glassy-eyed and let your mind wander off…

Health bonus: Follow along and stay engaged in the program and you’ll get more out of it.

4. Up to two hours is absolutely fine

I’ve said TV is good for you and your health, but don’t become the proverbial couch potato, planted for hours in front of the screen. Spanish researchers found that watching three hours or more of TV a day could double your risk of premature death. Double!

The best strategy is to plan out your TV time, identify what you really want to watch, and break it up instead of watching it straight through.

Of course, you could add in some jumping jacks during commercial breaks to maximize the health benefit – but know that you can feel good about your daily TV habit.

Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.

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