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Sitting around is bad for your health, especially if you're watching TV

Aug. 9, 2017—A lot of research has uncovered the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, linking stationary activities to a number of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

A new study set out to determine which sedentary activities were better—or worse—than others. For example, is reading as bad as riding in a car? What about time on the computer?

Turns out there was one big loser: watching television.

The study

Researchers looked at a diverse group of 3,211 adults. Participants had a physical exam and reported how much time they spent sitting while:

  • Watching TV.
  • Using a computer for nonwork activities or playing video games.
  • Doing paperwork.
  • Listening to music, reading or doing crafts.
  • Talking on the phone or texting.
  • In a car or other form of transportation.

Researchers also gave each person a cardiometabolic risk score based on waist circumference; blood pressure; and levels of fasting glucose, insulin, triglycerides and HDL (good) cholesterol.

The study showed that all the sedentary activities—except sitting in a car—were linked to higher cardiometabolic risk. But watching TV was the worst.

Replacing two hours in front of the TV with two hours of any other sedentary activity lowered cardiometabolic risks. No other changes from one sedentary task to another affected people's health.

What's so bad about TV?

Researchers had a few ideas about why watching TV was so bad. It's possible that watching TV requires less muscle activation than the other behaviors. It's also possible that the unhealthy eating and depression often linked to TV-watching account for the higher risk.

Another potential explanation, researchers said, is that participants may have been better able to account for time spent watching TV. Television shows are generally 30 or 60 minutes. By contrast, the other behaviors happen in shorter or more irregular spurts.

The study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Get the activity you need

We all love to take it easy. But our bodies require physical activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need two kinds of physical activity:

  • Moderate-intensity aerobic activity, like brisk walking. Strive to get 150 minutes each week.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups. That means legs, hips, back, abs, chest, shoulders and arms. Try to do this at least two days a week.

Two and a half hours of aerobic exercise each week sounds like a lot. But it's actually just about the time you'd spend watching a movie. And you don't have to do it all at once.

Spread your activity out across the week in a schedule that works for you. You can even exercise in small bursts. Just make sure you're moving with moderate effort for at least 10 minutes at a time.

Is it challenging to fit exercise into your life? Take our assessment on overcoming activity roadblocks.

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