Are Your TV Habits Sending You to the ER?

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Are Your TV Habits Sending You to the ER?

This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.

Have you recently broken a leg or ruptured your spleen? Your television viewing habits may be to blame: a 15-year study of close to 4,200 adults found that hostile people who watch more TV are at a higher risk of injury.

Young men and women in four American cities completed questionnaires that measured hostility, a personality trait associated with anger and aggression. Participants were also asked how much television they watched. Then, every five years, they answered questions about TV viewing and hospitalization for injuries.

The researchers found that hostile people who watched more television were 1.5 (and, on one occasion, 1.9) times more likely to have been hospitalized during the last five years. For instance, at the year 10 follow up, 4.6 percent of hostile people who watched 1-3 hours of TV a day had been admitted to a hospital. However, the hospitalization rate rose to 6.3 percent among hostile people who watched 4-6 hours of TV a day, and reached 8 percent in those who watched seven or more hours.

Why is this? Do angry, aggressive people who watch a lot of TV tend to have weaker bones or thinner skulls? Nope. According to Anthony Fabio, MPH, Ph.D., associate professor at the Epidemiology Data Center, University of Pittsburgh, and lead researcher on the study, the connection likely has to do with what people watch. “TV programs that show more high-risk behavior—whether it’s risk taking, violence or using alcohol or drugs—seem to increase risk of injury in people predisposed to hostility,” he says.

“We think it desensitizes folks to these behaviors, so the notion [of engaging in dangerous behaviors] becomes less high-risk,” he explains. That is, people who regularly watch on-screen characters punch rivals, hot-wire cars and go skydiving without suffering serious injury may be “less likely to think they’re taking a risk” if they themselves decide to do the same.

“It’s very clear that even watching a short amount of TV featuring high-risk behavior changes viewers’ behaviors quickly,” Fabio adds. “Not permanently, but quickly.”

So what can be done? Television content is unlikely to change; high risk behaviors are inherently dramatic and therefore attractive to viewers—who wants to watch MacGyver: Insurance Adjuster? Besides, “we also know that everyone who watches an action movie doesn’t speed down the highway and get into a fistfight,” Fabio points out.

Still, switching off the TV is a good place to start, since it’s not just hostile people who are at risk; watching a lot of TV is associated with increased odds of multiple health problems, including diabetes, fatty liver disease and death from pulmonary embolism (a blockage in the artery that supplies blood to the lungs).

Fortunately, there are plenty of workouts that can provide the adrenaline rush you’re used to getting from ABC or HBO. Jacque Crockford, exercise physiology content manager at the American Council on Exercise, recommends “climbing walls, obstacle courses and American Ninja Warrior-type courses at gyms and fitness facilities.” She also suggests looking for classes at local trampoline parks or gymnastics facilities, which may have parkour (a combination of vaulting, jumping and running) or free running courses, as well as aerial yoga, in which participants are suspended in a hammock (look for this at yoga studios, too).

These full-body workouts aren’t just designed to burn calories and make you feel like you’re starring in your own action film. “When the entire body is engaged in physical activity, muscles (including the heart) become stronger and, working with the respiratory system, provide more energized and oxygenated blood to the body,” Crockford says. “This leads to improved cardiovascular [heart and blood vessel] health, more stable joints and more overall energy (stamina).”

But if these options don’t appeal, you can get some exercise while watching your favorite shows, no treadmill required. “During commercial breaks, get up,” advises Crockford. “Walk around, stretch, do some simple movements.”

You can also improve your strength with these DIY exercises provided by Crockford:

• Put a towel or sock on one foot while other foot remains stable. Then do a lateral lunge, so you’re sliding back and forth on a slippery surface, like an ice skater. You can also do this in a pushup position: Keep your hands stationary, and with socks or towels on your feet, glide the feet from side to side or up and down underneath the chest. Perform two or three sets of 8-12 repetitions.

• If you want a more formal workout, resistance bands (elastic bands, often with handles, that force users to work harder to complete various exercises) are lightweight, portable, inexpensive and can be used while watching TV. Many resistance band sets include instructions, and a quick Internet search can also help you find appropriate exercises.

Note that if you’re not used to exercise, you may want to consult a doctor first, and always follow safety guidelines. After all, you don’t want improve your cardiovascular health only to break your ankle on a trampoline.

Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan is a NYC-based freelance health writer and editor.