TV binges aren't good for our mental health

Beat the bingeing blues - have a stretch between episodes or during the ad break

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Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute says getting up every half an hour while TV bingeing can help our mental health.

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IF your cushion is beginning to get an irredeemable bum indent and you've exhausted everything on the streaming services and are now onto re-runs of 30-year-old TV series, it might be time to get off the couch or risk the 'bingeing blues'.

A new study shows we can halve the negative mental impacts of sitting too long, such as while TV bingeing, by getting up off the couch more often in between episodes or in ad breaks.

The average Australian adult spends about nine hours per day sitting, a significant proportion of which is done during leisure time and in front of the TV.

However, the study from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and international collaborators, which examined data from more than 40,000 people, has shown for the first time, that breaking up sedentary leisure time isn't just good for reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease, but may also reduce the risk of depression and anxiety.

Study co-author and Head of Physical Activity Research at the Baker Institute, David Dunstan said that the mechanisms driving both physical and mental health benefits could be the same.

"We are exploring the idea that getting up and moving more helps to reduce inflammation in the body, which can benefit both physical and mental health," Professor Dunstan said.

"Blood flow is likely to increase and your body becomes more efficient at delivering glucose to the brain."

We are exploring the idea that getting up and moving more helps to reduce inflammation in the body, which can benefit both physical and mental health, - Professor David Dunstan, Baker Institute

The study data was collected from 40,550 Swedish workers between 2017 and 2019, with participants indicating how often they typically spent their leisure time being sedentary, and the frequency with which they interrupted this sedentary time. They also reported on any depression or anxiety symptoms.

Compared to those who never or rarely interrupted their sitting time, those who reported at least some interruptions had a lower risk of experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms. Those who indicated that they interrupted their sitting 'very often' reported half the rate of depression and anxiety symptoms.

The researchers propose the best way to beat the 'bingeing blues' was to stand up and move after every 30 minutes of sitting.

"In real life, this could be as simple as just standing up from the chair or couch, but ideally might involve simple resistance activities like half squats, arm or back stretches, or a brief walk - even just a few steps," Professor Dunstan said.

"The changing landscape of TV consumption, with the trend towards streaming services and away from free-to-air channels with ad breaks, also means the average viewer has even fewer prompts to get up off the couch and a never ending supply of content to keep them there.

"Our recent work indicates sedentary behaviours like watching TV that are passive in nature and mainly occur in leisure time are more detrimental to mental wellbeing than mentally-active sedentary behaviours, such as reading or activities that involve problem solving and deliberate mental effort.

"Given the high levels of depression and anxiety in the community, and how much time the average person spends sitting down, it's important to examine how we can reduce those effects.

"We also found the potential mental health benefits of interrupting sedentary behaviour may be greater in those who are highly sedentary during leisure-time, the people our previous research has shown are most at risk of depression and anxiety," said Professor Dunstan.

To optimise mental health benefits:

  • Get up during ad breaks or set reminders during streaming to introduce walking breaks or some brief exercises to get the muscles moving. A good guide is to break up sitting time every half hour
  • Swap some mentally passive sedentary activities with more mentally active ones - try reading or playing a game, instead of just watching TV
  • Do household tasks such as cooking, ironing or cleaning while watching TV so it isn't always sedentary and requires some cognitive engagement
  • Make a conscious effort to incorporate exercise into your day to break up large amounts of mentally-passive sedentary activities.

The report was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry

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