This week a government body finally woke up to the fact that TV makes us fat.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) is drafting recommendations that people cut down on their TV consumption. Having ditched the box myself ten years ago, I wonder why it took them so long to switch on to something so obvious.
Folk in the UK watch around 22 hours of TV a week.
That's just over three hours a day. They do it sitting down. That means they exercise less. They snack more watching TV even if they're not hungry (Wansink, 2006).
Of course they're going to be piling on the pounds with every programme that pops onto the screen. Add to that the adverts for high-fat calorific snacks and there's a recipe for over-sized couch potatoes.
It's long been known that TV watchers have a higher BMI, on average, than non-TV watchers.
'The less TV people watch, the skinnier they are' says Brian Wansink, PhD, author of 'Mindless Eating'.
When Professor Fletcher, Dr. Penman and I published 'The No Diet Diet' in 2005 the first day of the 'diet' (which is about lifestyle changes not food) required switching off the TV and doing something different. Many people went on to lose masses of weight with this approach.
Just do something different
Instead of slumping in front of the telly, NICE recommends that people swim, cycle or take a walk. That's a lovely idea. However, we've found if people do anything instead, if they clean out the hamster cage, tidy the airing cupboard or phone Aunt Nelly, they start to break their sedentary habits and adopt a healthier life.
Breaking lifestyle habits is the key to losing weight
Of course, calories in and out determine weight. But it's critical to break the chain of habits that support over-eating and prevent exercise. And TV is the first link in that chain for many people.
According to NICE "any strategy that reduces TV viewing and other leisure screen time may be helpful (such as TV free days or setting a limit to watch TV for no more than two hours a day".
At Do Something Different we've used these strategies with sedentary families too:
• Get up and walk on the spot during every ad break
• After a week get up and jog on the spot during every ad break. We later upped this to dancing during ad breaks, or doing press-ups!
• Rearrange the furniture so the TV isn't the focal point.
• Hide the remote controller, keep it in another room or upstairs.
• Have at least one screen-free day every week.
• Eat meals at the table, not in front of the TV.
Get your life back
TV sucks away hours of your life.
Getting rid of mine gave me back oodles of time. People often tell me that they learn a lot from TV programmes. However I'm more inclined to side with the author Danny Schechter who says:
Because humans learn more by doing than watching. So I'd rather be baking that watching someone else bake. I'd rather sing for the joy it brings rather than in the hope that I've 'got talent'. I'd rather learn to dance than watch a minor celebrity trip across a screen.
I can still watch films and documentaries online but it's an active choice (one I exercise increasingly rarely) not something that's fed to me. If I happen across TV now I am now struck by how synthetic, sickly and blatantly commercial it is. I've also written about how ditching the TV not only sames you time, it can even save you money too.
Young minds don't need a diet of TV
Save the TV license money and you'll do your kids a huge favour too. The developing brain needs to be active to learn. It needs new experiences to form new neural connections. Passively receiving television output is not conducive to this growth. Dr Spitzer, author of the 2012 book 'Digital Dementia: What We and Our Children are Doing to our Minds' has gone so far as to warn that the deficits in brain development are irreversible.
Studies have also shown that television viewing in childhood and adolescence is associated with overweight, poor fitness, smoking, and raised cholesterol in adulthood (Hancox, Milne and Poultain 2004). Cutting back on TV seems a no-brainer, so let's listen to the NICE people and do something different.
*The NICE recommendations are available for anyone to comment on.