Television & Diabetes
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | April 22, 2003

Watching television increases the rate of obesity and diabetes. Sounds like it's stating the obvious, doesn't it? You probably didn't need a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association to tell you that. If you're sedentary, you use fewer calories and you're at greater risk of getting fat and developing a disease such as diabetes, right? Not exactly.

The Nurses' Health Study is an ongoing study that's followed the health of over 100,000 nurses for more than 20 years; nurses were chosen because of their ability to answer technical questions about their health practices. The purpose of the study is to identify which health behaviors have been beneficial and which have not.

In this case, researchers followed a subset of study participants for over six years (1). What they found was that for every two-hour increment increase in television watching per day, the risk of obesity increased 23% and the risk of developing diabetes increased 14%.

What made this study so interesting was that it differentiated television watching from other activity considered sedentary, such as working on a computer. The increase in obesity over the course of the study was only 5% for each two-hour increment per day of working on a computer, and the rate of diabetes was half that for television watchers: 7%. No surprise that they found every two-hour increase in physical activity, such as standing or walking, resulted in a 9% decrease in the rate of obesity and 12% reduction in the rate of diabetes.

What could explain the difference between the two sedentary activities? It could be something as simple as brain power. Working on a computer is an active process that requires a lot of thinking and at least some movement--typing, scrolling the mouse, and so on. Watching television is more of a passive process--you can sit absolutely still for hours at a time and really zone out mentally, and that requires even less energy than working at the computer. It may be that slight decreases in metabolism, every day over six years, made a significant difference in the rate of obesity and diabetes.

The point is that it's time to get up and get moving to reduce the epidemic of obesity and diabetes we have in the United States and Canada--ride a bike, go for a walk, take dancing lessons. It might be wise to workout with an exercise tape every day such as the Better Life Body Video. If you enjoy watching television, try to be more selective so you devote fewer hours to the tube. There's nothing wrong with relaxing with a good TV show, but it's like everything else in life--don't overdo it.


  1. Hu, FB et al. Television Watching and Other Sedentary Behaviors in Relation to Risk of Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Women. JAMA. 2003;289:1785-1791.
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