It’s the day after Christmas, and it’s possible Santa brought you a new screen of some sort. It’s probably stating the obvious to say that the more time you spend sitting in front of a screen, be it a computer, gaming, smartphone, or television screen, the less time you spend being active. While some might choose to go for a run or hit the gym to decompress after work and on the weekend, there are others who choose to kick off their shoes and spend this nonwork time on a couch in front of their TV or playing video games or browsing websites on their smartphone or computer. Is this a problem? One study suggests if you aren’t balancing your leisure screen time with regular exercise, it can be a big problem. Let’s review.
Decrease Screen Time and Increase Exercise to Lower Disease Risks
Screen time, or time spent in front of the TV or on the computer, is linked to a number of disease risks, such as heart disease, cancer, and death from any cause (termed all-cause mortality). Researchers conducted one study to determine if exercise negated these screen-time risks.
This study defined screen time as leisure time spent either in front of a computer screen or television screen. The study consisted of nearly 400,000 participants with no prior history of chronic diseases, such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. Information collected over the five-year time period included leisurely time (not work time) spent in front of a screen, exercise activities as well as grip strength, the development of disease and deaths, and so on.
What did researchers discover? The chance of heart disease, cancer, and death due to other diseases was almost doubled in those who exercised less and whose grip strength was weak. Analyzing screen time only, meaning with no other factors, such as exercise, grip strength, and so on, more screen time equated to increased risks for potentially fatal diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Merging the two findings, researchers concluded that the risks of these diseases were lowered in those who offset their screen time with regular exercise and strength training.
The Less Screen Time the Better
It’s important to note here that the less screen time the better, whether regular exercise is involved or not. We aren’t suggesting that as long as you hit the gym regularly, you can spend extra hours in front of a screen. Keep in mind that when the study removed exercise from the equation (meaning they didn’t consider whether the participant exercised or not), more screen time all on its own was associated with an increased risk of potentially fatal diseases.
Another reason why the less time you spend in front of a screen the better is because all that screen time can be very disruptive to your sleep cycle. While it’s clear that a good night of sleep physically restores us, proper sleep also recharges our brain cells and cleans out the stuff our brain no longer needs.
The artificial blue light on the screens of all of our electronic devices, including TVs, smartphones, computers, and so on, has also been well studied and shown to slow or stop the production of our sleep hormone, melatonin. The secretion of melatonin occurs with our natural circadian rhythm, which is our biological sleep-wake cycle based on sunrise and sunset each day, and is stimulated as darkness sets in. When melatonin production is halted due to this exposure to the blue lights on our screens after dark, sleep can become a problem as well. And what do many people, unfortunately, do when they can’t sleep? They turn on their screens, making matters worse over time. If you use a blue-light-blocking device (e.g., glasses, apps, filters, etc.), this can be an effective solution for better sleep, but it doesn’t mean you should increase that screen time; it just means there’s an option that won’t disrupt your melatonin production if you must look at a screen later in the evening.
What if Your Job Requires a Lot of Screen Time?
This study didn’t include screen time on the job, and let’s be honest, that’s where the majority of us probably spend most of our screen time in today’s world. Standing desks can be a good solution. The image below, for example, is the standing desk Dr. Centeno now uses, and all of our doctors at the clinic now use these standing desks. Standing is not only better for your body than sitting, but it allows you to be more active at your desk, adding in some stretches and squats, for example, throughout the day.
So for work and life in general, stand more, sit less, and we can take that a step further. The more movement, whether it’s exercising, stretching, lifting weights, the better. So if you just can’t miss those Thursday-night TV shows or the opportunity to binge-watch Netflix’s latest and greatest original series, hop on the treadmill or toss a mat in front of the TV and exercise while you watch. Maybe your New Year’s resolution should be to replace your home computer desk with a standing desk or never sitting while playing a video game, which will likely keep you more active as you play as well as limit your screen time.
More exercise and less screen time truly is a big key to staying or getting healthy and should be your daily goal, not vice versa.