How to make TV watching less sedentary

A recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity suggests that a simple intervention of stepping on the spot during TV commercial breaks can significantly reduce your sedentary time, decrease caloric consumption, and trim your waist and hip circumference on par with an intervention meant to get people walking for 30 minutes per day.

If you’ve been reading Obesity Panacea for a while now, you’ll likely be all too aware that sitting too much is literally killing you. As Travis has described before, regardless of how much time you spend at the gym, the more time you spend engaging in sedentary behaviour (e.g. sitting) the greater your chance of numerous diseases and premature mortality.

So what is one to do?

Since Travis and I initially became aware of this research and realized we perfectly exemplified “active couch potatoes”, we’ve tried a number of ways to reduce our sedentary time. In early 2011, I did a one month experiment of home-based mini-exercise sessions spread throughout the day in an effort to break up my time sitting at my desk. Travis has been using a foot-pedal machine under his desk so that his legs continue to work despite his behind being planted in his chair. We’ve also experimented with standing desks, and utilize various tricks to prompt ourselves to get off our butts on a regular basis (e.g. drink plenty of water, thereby having to regularly get up to use the washroom).

At this point, there is little research to support one intervention method over another. It is also unclear how often one should take breaks from sitting and for how long. All we really know is that the less you sit, the better off you’ll be.

This recent study by Jeremy Steeves and colleagues is interesting as the intervention focused specifically on reducing sedentary time in front of the TV. Why TV viewing?

In the US, TV viewing is the most popular sedentary leisure-time ‘activity’; the average American watches between 3-5 hrs of TV per day (up to 35hrs per week). By contrast, the same people state that they simply do not have enough time to meet the recommended level of physical activity (150 minutes per week).

Another neat idea here is using TV commercial breaks as prompts to get up, and also to use the duration of the break as the time to move. Since a 30-minute TV program consists of approximately 8-12 minutes of commercials, someone who watches 90-minutes of television could accumulate between 24-36 minutes of physical activity – approximately what is recommended.

And that is exactly what participants in this study did over a period of 6 months. One group was told to walk for 30 minutes on at least 5 days of the week (normal physical activity recommendations), while the other was instructed to step in one place or to walk briskly around their home during commercial breaks over a 90-minute period of television viewing on at least 5 days per week. Both groups received 6 monthly phone calls, attended monthly meetings for the first 3 months, and received monthly newsletters for the last 3 months. In other words, the intervention was quite ‘hands-off’.

At the end of the 6 months, both groups increased the number of daily steps taken (4611 to 7605 steps/day in the TV commercial stepping group and 4909 to 7865 steps/day in the walking group). Both groups also decreased their TV viewing time (from approximately 4 to 3 hours per day) and caloric intake (~2000 kcal/day to ~1700 kcal/day). In response to these lifestyle changes the participants’ waist and hip circumferences also reduced by a few centimeters.

Although this study is very preliminary, I would love to know what happened to the metabolic health of these individuals by comparison to folks who had no intervention and continued to sit in fro not the TV during programs and commercials alike.

Take home message?

Next time you’re spending an evening in front of the TV, why not get up during the commercials and move around a bit – maybe even tidy up the house or do some chores. You’ll reduce your sedentary time, be more productive, and not get tempted to eat the junk being perpetually advertised on TV.

I realize this type of intervention may not suit all individuals, but even if only a fraction of the population finds this little change in behaviour feasible (as I certainly do) it can help reduce our collective sedentary time. And while stepping in one place is pretty boring, using commercials to prompt you do ANYTHING other than sitting on your couch is a very simple change most people can make.


Reference: Steeves et al. Can sedentary behavior be made more active? A randomized pilot study of TV commercial stepping versus walking. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2012, 9:95 doi:10.1186/1479-5868-9-95.

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One Response to How to make TV watching less sedentary

  1. Jair says:

    This advice doesn’t work very well for those who record shows on a DVR and then skip commercials when they watch. Guess alternatives will have to be found. 😀