What Are the Hidden Health Hazards of Binge-Watching?

Squeezing in another episode at 3 a.m. is thrilling. However, it comes at the expense of your mental and physical health.

Binge-watching has become a popular way to consume our favorite TV shows, thanks to the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar and Hulu. These services allow us to watch multiple episodes—or even an entire series—in one sitting, without having to wait a week for the next installment. 

It’s tempting to hit “just one more episode”, but did you know that too much binge-watching could actually impact your health? Let’s look deeper into the trend of binge-watching to understand its impacts on both our physical and mental well-being, and explore some tips to keep our viewing habits both enjoyable and healthy.

Who is binge-watching? Age trends in series marathon sessions

Binge-watching is especially popular among the younger crowd. A 2019 survey found that over half of U.S. adults under 45 binge entire TV seasons in one go. This trend has been fueled by streaming services like Netflix, which drop entire seasons of shows like 1899, Stranger Things, Dark and Squid Game all at once, making it all too easy to keep watching.

Notably, 70% of adults between 30 to 44 are frequent binge-watchers. Women are slightly more likely to binge-watch, with 49% of binge-watchers being female as of April 2020. It’s particularly common among teens and young adults—with 60% of those aged 13 to 17 and 69% of those 18 to 29 regularly indulging in binge-watching sessions.

The appeal of binge-watching is undeniable, thanks to its convenience and the thrill of instant satisfaction. However, it’s important to consider the potential health impacts of this popular media consumption habit.

Sitting too long? Here’s what it does to you

It’s no secret that those marathon binge-watching sessions can lead us to a more sedentary lifestyle. We often hear about how remaining inactive for long periods can be bad for our health—binge-watching is a textbook example. Research has linked this kind of inactivity to a host of serious health issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure and even an increased risk of stroke. The simple fact is, the less you move, the greater your risk for these health problems.

Your binge position can also impact your breathing 

Slouching or lying down during a long binge-watching session is tempting, but these positions can affect your lungs’ ability to breathe deeply. Studies have shown that our breathing muscles, including the diaphragm, work best when we’re sitting upright. Poor posture, such as slouching, can shorten and tighten these muscles, reducing their efficiency and leading to shallower breathing.

Moreover, binge-watching for extended periods can have more serious consequences. Studies have linked prolonged sitting during TV marathons to an increased risk of developing venous thromboembolism (VTE). This serious condition involves blood clots forming in the legs, which can then travel to the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism—blockage of blood flow to the lungs. As a result, we might experience symptoms like dizziness, coughing, swelling in the legs and sharp chest pains. 

Snacking and watching: A recipe for trouble

Our eating habits tend to go south when we’re glued to the screen. Binge-watching often pairs with binge eating—mindlessly eating snacks without paying attention to hunger cues. 

Lilian Cheung, a director of health promotion and communication at Harvard, points out that when we’re distracted by a show, we’re not really aware of what or how much we eat. This lack of awareness can easily lead to overeating, and over time, it can result in weight gain.

What’s more, with all the food and drink commercials thrown at us during our long viewing stretches, it’s tempting to munch on unhealthy snacks. Frequently giving in to cravings for sugary beverages and oily foods can set the stage for health issues like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Screen time can steal your sleep

One of the sneakier problems of binge-watching is its impact on our sleep. Watching episode after episode can disrupt our sleep patterns significantly. In 2019, nearly 44% of U.S. adults under 25 reported losing sleep due to binge-watching. Even more concerning is the number of people who have stayed up all night watching shows, a practice that seriously disrupts normal sleep patterns.

The issue doesn’t stop with just losing a few hours of sleep. The blue light from our screens plays a major role in suppressing the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep cycles. This makes it much harder to fall asleep after you’ve finally turned off the TV.

Research from 2017, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, has directly linked binge-watching to sleep problems like fatigue and insomnia. It’s crucial to understand that a good night’s sleep is essential, not just for feeling rested but for overall health. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to a host of serious health issues, including cardiovascular diseases and even an increased risk of some cancers.

The social side of binge-watching solo

Beyond the physical, binge-watching has its psychological pitfalls. Spending long hours cooped up in our rooms watching TV reduces the time we spend interacting face-to-face with friends and family. This can make us feel lonely and isolated.

Moreover, binge-watching triggers a spike in dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone, which makes it difficult to stop after just one more episode. Dr. Danesh A. Alam, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine, explains that these repeated behaviors can establish a neurological pattern similar to other forms of addiction. This cycle is tough to break and might lead to defensive or irritable behavior when someone suggests you stop watching. It’s not uncommon for people to become so engrossed in their viewing that they might even lie to conceal the extent of their habits.

The psychological effects of binge-watching can be profound and long-lasting. Engaging in excessive TV watching during your 30s and 40s has been linked to serious long-term consequences, such as increased risks of dementia, memory loss and a decline in fine motor skills in later life. 

Balancing the binge: Tips for healthier viewing habits

We’re not saying you need to stop binge-watching entirely—after all, catching up on your favorite series can be a great way to relax. The trick is to do it in moderation. Setting a timer or using an alarm to monitor how long you’ve been watching can keep your viewing habits in check. Another effective strategy is to watch TV in a designated area rather than lounging on your comfy bed or couch. This not only helps resist the urge to watch “just one more episode” but also promotes better posture. 

Enjoying your favorite shows without falling into the binge trap is all about balance. With some mindful changes to how and when you watch, you can enjoy your downtime without compromising your health. Next time you’re ready to start a new series, remember to take breaks, snack wisely and maybe even stretch a little between episodes. Happy watching and stay healthy!

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