What Roles does Watching TV Play in Weight Gain?

Watching TV Cause Weight GainBeware of too much television viewing!  Published in the journal Obesity, a 2006 study by Raynor and colleagues examined the relationship between weight and viewing of television, VCRs, and/or DVDs.  Their subjects included 1422 subjects who had just joined the National Weight Control Registry.  In order to join the Registry, each subject had to have reported losing at least 30 pounds and maintaining that weight loss for at least a year.  One interesting fact emerged right away from information gleaned from these subjects:  they had not been frequent television watchers at the time they joined the Registry.  Only 12.5% reported watching television for three hours per day or more, and 38.5% reported doing so for less than 10 hours per week, versus an average television watching time of 28 hours per week for the American public at large.  One wonders if the low television viewing may have contributed to the subjects’ losing enough weight to qualify for joining the Registry.

The authors found that the subjects who watched the most television gained significantly more weight back in the year after joining the Registry than those who watched the least.  In addition, those who increased their television watching during the succeeding year gained more than those who did not, particularly if they also reduced their level of physical activity.  Specifically, subjects who increased television watching while decreasing physical activity averaged gaining back 9.0 pounds during the year, versus an average weight gain of 2.2 pounds for those who increased physical activity and reduced television watching.

These results are not too surprising.  After all, the great increase in the incidence of obesity in the last 20-30 years has been associated in time with a greatly increased role of television, VCRs/DVDs, and computers in the daily lives of most Americans.  We have become a largely sedentary culture, with so many means of entertainment for which we primarily sit and do not move.

This study did not provide a definitive answer for why television watching is associated with weight regain.  Certainly, low physical activity is one factor, but when level of physical activity was held constant, subjects who watched a lot of television or increased their watching still gained more weight over the course of the year than those who did not.  Snacking during watching television may be a culprit; many people who gain weight report a tendency to snack a lot, particularly with high-calorie and high-fat food and at night.  If people get used to eating in front of the television, the mere act of turning it on may become a learned cue for desiring and eating food.

These results challenge all of us to consider how watching television (or, for that matter, engaging in other sedentary entertainment such as using the computer) might affect our own ability to maintain or extend weight loss in the long-term.  Do such activities take us away from the physical exercise needed for success?  Has the television or the computer become a conditioned cue for overeating? If so, how can we combat these effects?

The best ways to prevent weight gain associated with sedentary entertainment vary from person to person, but several ideas may be helpful.  One might be to combine television watching with exercise, perhaps with a treadmill or stationary bicycle.  Another might be to arrange regular exercise on a schedule, or to make sedentary entertainment contingent on completing a certain amount of exercise each day.  You might also consider how to reduce calorie intake in front of the television or computer, perhaps by making a rule to eat only at the table, or to eat only prepared low-calorie snacks.  Using the three behavioral principles of self-monitoring, goal-setting, and support may also be helpful.  You are likely to benefit from keeping track of what you eat in front of the television or computer, setting specific and realistic goals for such eating, and/or enlisting the help of your support system to encourage you while you work on behavioral change.

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Reference:  Raynor, DA, Phelan, S, Hill, JO, & Wing, RR.  Television viewing and long-term weight maintenance results from the National Weight Control Registry.  Obesity, 2006, vol. 14, 1816-1824.

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