Every morning, as soon as her husband leaves for work and child for school, Ruchika Bhutani, 30, a part-time counsellor and homemaker based in Delhi, switches on the television in her bedroom. From late morning till 2am, the television is on, with either Bhutani, her husband or their six-year-old daughter watching their favourite shows. Even while Bhutani is doing her household chores, or her daughter is doing her homework or taking a nap, the television is on. “When my daughter takes her nap, I mute the TV, but don’t switch it off," says Bhutani, who cannot imagine a world without television. “There’s simply no substitute for it. If I switch off the telly, I will get so bored that I would have to step out of the house."

She sometimes misses her daily walk to follow the lives of characters of her favourite soaps and even ends up frustrated when a character doesn’t see through a possible danger or act in a certain way. “When I talk to my family and friends, many a times we end up discussing characters from the shows as if they were real and we are gossiping about them. It’s not normal," she agrees, “but everyone knows about these characters. Don’t you?"

Though the psychological effects of television as an omnipotent presence in our lives are still being researched, it’s the physical effects of the leisure activity that require urgent action, according to Lennert Veerman, a senior research fellow at School of Population Health, The University of Queensland, Australia.

In August 2011, Veerman released a study titled “Television Viewing Time and Reduced Life Expectancy: A Life Table Analysis", published online, which conclusively shows that every single hour of TV viewing by those above 25 years, shortens the life expectancy of the viewer by 20 minutes. Make it 6 hours of TV every day and it might cost you five years of life expectancy. “Since TV viewing is a form of inactivity, the reverse of exercise, we expected an effect on life expectancy, but the size of this effect surprised even us," Veerman says. Various studies in the past decade have linked TV viewing with diabetes, back pain, obesity, cardiovascular problems and other life-shortening diseases, but its addiction remains a fact in modern life. The first thing that many of us do as soon as we enter our homes is to switch the television on. Veerman feels that the habit is so omnipotent that researchers have to shift the focus of research from benefits of exercising to the adverse effect of too much sitting (in spite of exercising daily) in front of the television. “The good news is that if you replace just half an hour of TV watching with walking, it will be able to prevent disease," he says in an email interview.

Reduce it every day

By reducing your average TV watching time from about 5 hours everyday to 2.5 hours, you can burn an extra 119 calories a day, according to the study “Effects of Television Viewing Reduction on Energy Intake and Expenditure in Overweight and Obese Adults", which was published in Internal Medicine in December 2009.

“Television is a very sedentary activity, burning only slightly more calories than sleep. Reducing your television viewing time by half may result in burning calories equivalent of walking a little over a mile per day, or eight miles a week," says Jennifer Otten, postdoctoral research fellow, Stanford University, California, US, and one of the authors of the study, in an email interview. Some of her participants who used that extra time to walk their dogs or sign up for a yoga class could turn their lives around.

Do it: Quit aimless channel surfing and instead make a TV-watching plan each week. Figure out the shows you cannot do without and sift them from the shows that you hate watching but have a habit of watching. Now set an alarm. Once the show you wanted to watch is over, switch the television off and do something else.

Keep the background noise off

According to a study published in October, titled “Background Television in the Homes of US Children", in the journal Pediatrics, children in US homes are exposed to nearly 4 hours of background television on a typical day from eight months of age.

“Researchers have found that the presence of background television significantly reduces children’s time spent playing with toys as well as their focused attention during play and decreased the quantity and quality of parent-child interaction," says Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, one of the authors of the study and assistant professor, Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam, in an email interview. Piotrowski also has data which she plans to publish next year on how children exposed to background television have more difficulties with executive functions like cognitive behaviour and self-regulation.

Do it: Make it a rule—no television while the sun is still out. Encourage your child to get out and play in the sun. Take the TV out of your child’s bedroom and turn it off when no one’s watching it. Put on some music if it’s too silent for your liking.

Do chores alongside

A paper published in July in the online journal BMJ Open, “Sedentary Behaviour And Life Expectancy In The USA: A Cause-Deleted Life Table Analysis", proves that watching television reduces your lifespan. It’s not the activity per se, but the sitting involved that shortens your lifespan, according to Peter Katzmarzyk, professor, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, US, and lead author of the paper. “People who sit most of the day have a higher risk of dying prematurely rather than those who sit less," he says in an email interview. The study builds up on previous work that shows sitting and watching TV have an impact on not only the individual but also the population’s health.

Do it: Stand and watch television and you would be on your way to a healthier lifestyle. Do chores like ironing, paperwork, washing dishes or exercise—use dumb-bells, stretch or do sit-ups—while you watch your show.

Eat with the screen off

Want to go on a diet? Then switch off the comedy show while you eat. Eating with the television on makes you feel like snacking sooner. In 2008, Suzanne Higgs, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham, UK, led a study, “Television Watching During Lunch Increases Afternoon Snack Intake of Young Women", which proved that eating in front of the television leads to more food cravings later in the day in women.

“Memories of eating are disrupted by watching TV and this contributes to increased food intake later in the day," she says in an email interview, “leading you to an afternoon snack even though you have eaten your lunch."

Focusing on the food, its flavour, textures and appearance makes you feel fuller for longer.

Do it: Switch the TV off while having your meals, be it alone or with family. Read a book or have a discussion over your meal instead.

Don’t use it as a night lamp

Flickering screens are harmful not only to the eyes but also make you feel depressed. A study, “Chronic Dim Light At Night Provokes Reversible Depression-like Phenotype: Possible Role For TNF", conducted in July, by Tracy Bedrosian, doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Ohio State University, US, shows that chronic exposure to dim levels of light at night or the flickering screen of your television, provokes depression-like behaviour. The reason is that the body’s circadian system is adapted to the natural cycle of bright days and dark nights and any unnatural light exposure during the night is disruptive. “Remove these lights and the symptoms are reversed," she says in an email interview.

Do it: Minimize your late-night television watching. Go for a walk or read a book instead.

Exercise instead

“TV is not an addiction similar to smoking or narcotics," says Ulf Ekelund, professor at department of sport medicine, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Oslo, in an email interview, “It’s just a bad habit which leads to an inactive and unhealthy lifestyle." Ekelund studied the association between TV viewing and mortality in his research “Television Viewing Time Independently Predicts All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality: The EPIC Norfolk Study", published in 2010 and found that just this leisure activity results in shorter lifespan and increases cardiovascular risk in people.

Do it: Convert one hour of your TV time into exercise time daily. Be it a walk before or after dinner with your spouse or simply meditation or yoga. Leave the remote and start working out.

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