In today’s society, it is my opinion that we overcomplicate what it means to be healthy. Every day we see and hear messages about how and what to eat, how to exercise, and even how to be happy on media outlets such as daytime talk-shows and Facebook. If you gathered a random group of people and asked them about what they consider a “healthy lifestyle”, you would likely get a mixed-bag of responses. There would be disputes between whether gluten is good or bad for you, whether cardio or weight-lifting is more effective for weight-loss, and whether or not it is beneficial to practice mindfulness while doing the dishes. In addition to the television shows, magazines, and blogs centred around ‘lifestyle’, there are even online quizzes that claim to measure how happy and/or healthy you are in your personal and professional lives. On top of all this, we are advised to watch less television and spend less time in front of a screen; ironically, we receive the overwhelming majority of this health-related advice through the screen.
Most Canadians have a television in their home, and many of us have more than one. In fact, over 90% of Canadians have a TV in their living room, approximately 50% have a TV in their master bedroom, and 10% have a TV in their kitchen! According to Statistics Canada, Canadians 18 and older watch television for a staggering 30 hours per week, on average. Further, physical activity levels tend to decrease in young adulthood as this is often a time of major lifestyle changes (full-time work, parenthood). So the question is, does television watching and low physical activity have any negative effects on our health and well-being? A body of research suggests that sedentary behaviours, such as TV watching, and low physical activity are linked to physical health problems over time. This lifestyle is also associated with cognitive impairment and dementia in older adults. However, little is known about the long-term effects of such behaviours on cognitive functioning over time.
Effects of TV watching and physical activity on cognitive function
One recent study examined the effect of TV watching and physical activity in young adulthood on cognitive function later in life, and the study revealed some interesting findings. In this longitudinal study, a large group of individuals were repeatedly assessed for their TV and exercise habits over a period of 25 years. Based on this information, individuals were placed into one of three groups; (1) most active (high activity and low TV watching), (2) intermediate (high activity and high TV watching or low activity and low TV watching), and (3) least active (low activity and high TV watching). At year 25, the individuals completed a series of psychological tests to measure their cognitive function.
The results revealed that patterns of low physical activity and high TV watching in young adulthood were linked to worse cognitive function later in life. Specifically, these individuals were more likely to show deficits in processing speed and executive functioning. In other words, participants in the least active category were more likely to have poor cognitive function compared to those in the most active category.
It is important to note that this study only included television, and did not include other screen-based sedentary activities such as video games and social media use. Further, patterns of TV watching and physical activity were self-reported, so reports may not have been entirely accurate (e.g., some people may have trouble remembering or exaggerate their answers to appear a certain way). Lastly, overall cognitive function is difficult to assess and the tests used in this study did not assess all cognitive domains.
Instead of turning to the screen for answers on how to live a healthy lifestyle, it may be more beneficial to simply turn off the TV, get outside and move your body. Go for a walk with a friend in the evening, or take the stairs on campus or at your workplace. Perhaps it is worth thinking about whether you need that second TV in your bedroom. This study is a good reminder of the fact that our choices today influence our future selves.
Angus Reid Strategies. (2009). Looking at Canadian TV Viewing Habits. Retrieved from http://www.sharp.ca/~/media/SharpCanada/Press%20Kits/release_LED_Survey_FactSheet_English_07_31_09.ashx
Hoang, T. D., Reis, J., Zhu, N., Jacobs, D. R., Launer, L. J., Whitmer, R. A., ... & Yaffe, K. (2016). Effect of Early Adult Patterns of Physical Activity and Television Viewing on Midlife Cognitive Function. JAMA Psychiatry, 73(1), 73-79.
Statistics Canada. (2015). Communications Monitoring Report 2015: Canada's Communications System: An Overview for Citizens, Consumers, and Creators. Retrieved from http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/publications/reports/policymonitoring/2015/cmr2.htm