Most of us know that watching TV isn’t exactly the kale of activities but rather the physical equivalent of eating deep-fried Spam. One recent Harvard study found that excessive TV watching (20 hours a week) can lower men’s sperm count by 50 percent. An Australian study revealed that every hour those 25 and older spend in front of the boob tube lowered life expectancy by 22 minutes; those who watch more than six hours a day may chop their lifespan by five years. Other research suggests that TV-watching may have negative cognitive effects, plus one study found that those who eat dinner in front of their screen are likely to consume 10 percent more than those who don’t—and 25 percent more in their subsequent meal.
Yikes! And it doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re watching Nova or Two and a Half Men—just the act of sitting, passively watching, and being distracted has all these potential effects. But in the same way we know that cupcakes aren’t the best to eat, we indulge. Especially during a cold, gray Northeastern winter, sometimes, at least for me, the most alluring option after a long weekday or during a cloudy Sunday is to cozy up to some of my favorite programs. Yes, I watch enough TV these days that I have, like my grandmother before me, programs.
This is the other conundrum, right? Dovetailing with the science that says TV is the junk food of the soul is the fact that TV has never been better—fantastic writing, great actors, rich stories. And, the main prior TV deal-breaker for me has also vanished in the age of iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon Prime: commercials. It’s possible to watch TV these days without a chirpy woman in chinos trying to sell me toxic furniture polish.
The shows that have been seeing me through this winter are ones like Modern Family (makes me laugh); Once Upon a Time (opens my imagination); Girls (a brilliant, relatable cringe-a-thon); and when things get really mopey, my virtual Prozac is old episodes of Friends on DVD. I know, I know. I can’t justify it, really, but the Central Perk gang comforts me. And I just saw the poster for the new season of Mad Men, and got a little more excited about a TV show than I wanted to be.
So I’m torn. I want to be healthy. I want to sit less. I want my brain to be fully engaged. I want those 22 minutes, thanks. I don’t love the way TV can numb me and keep me from doing other, more productive, life-affirming things. (Side note: Sex columnist Dan Savage’s first question to couples who say they don’t have time for sex is: “Are you watching TV? If so, stop.”) And yet, I also want to zone out and laugh and be intrigued by great writing and compelling characters. So what’s a yogically inclined TV-grazer to do? I think these tips might help me, and maybe you (unless you are an I-don’t-even-own-a-TV type—which I actually was for four years and, surprisingly enough, life did not end).
1) Set boundaries. It’s recommended that kids not watch more than two hours a day. Same should go for us. Because, really, two hours a day? That’s 14 hours a week—28 days a year. A whole freaking month spent staring at a screen.
2) Move while you watch. Pretend you don’t have a sofa and stretch on the floor, use a foam roller, do crunches on an exercise ball. Anything to negate the sitting-related evils of TV-watching.
3) Make TV an event. Love Mad Men? Invite people over to watch every week—you’ll get the emotional and cognitive benefits of being socially connected, which hopefully balances out the detriments of watching Don Draper be terrible—and terribly handsome.
4) Take a TV fast. Take two weeks and watch no TV whatsoever. A while back I felt as though my honey and I were watching more than we were talking. So we took a TV break and it was lovely. Now that we’re back on the tube, it feels less like a habit and more like a choice. You also might discover that you’re engaged in more creative endeavors that free you from ever needing to know what happens on Downton Abbey.
5) Do a body scan before and after. Before you turn on the tube, close your eyes and feel. What’s the quality of your thinking, your body sensations? Just notice. Jot a couple of sentences down. After watching your allotted show(s), do this again. Notice. Do you feel less relaxed? More? This will give you information on how you may want to adjust your viewing habits.
6) Kill your TV. Or just gently give it away. Cold turkey might change your life. I heard a story about a guy whose toddler broke the TV with a ladle, and he was slow in replacing it. Suddenly, he noticed they were making forts instead of watching TV. Talking, playing, being more physical, and generally having a much better quality of family life. I’m not there yet, but I like this idea—a lot.
Do you watch TV? If not, why? If so, does it feel good to you, or is it a habit you’d like to break?