Can Watching TV Put Cancer Survivors at Risk?

Tuning in to the risk of TV for Cancer Survivors
December 9, 2014
Amber Bauer, ASCO staff

Are you planning to spend at least part of the holidays catching up on your favorite shows? Chances are you will not only eat far too many goodies this holiday season but will also devour a substantial quantity of TV. With more on-demand viewing options than ever before, more and more of us (to the tune of about 63% of Americans) are now binge-watchers, consuming three or more episodes of the same program in one sitting.

TV watching and mortality risk

Although many of us grudgingly admit that lounging in front of the TV isn’t exactly the best thing we could be doing for our health, a new study published online yesterday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology shows that physical inactivity and watching TV are actually linked to higher mortality risks for people with colorectal cancer.

According to the results of this study, watching more than five hours of TV a day before being diagnosed with colorectal cancer is associated with an approximately 20% increase in the risk of dying.   However, cancer survivors can reduce this risk by getting up and moving. Spending seven or more hours a week exercising after a colorectal cancer diagnosis lowers the risk of dying by 31%, regardless of the amount of physical activity a person did before being diagnosed.

“These findings underscore just how important it is for physicians to encourage patients to make positive lifestyle choices,” said Gary K. Schwartz, MD, Chief of Columbia University Medical Center’s Division of Hematology and Oncology and ASCO Cancer Communications Committee member. “Physical activity and sedentary leisure activities, such as TV watching, can have a measurable impact on survival, recovery time, and overall quality of life for patients.”  

But you don't have to miss your favorite shows to become more active. Here are a few tips from the experts.

Ways to turn TV time into workout time

  • If you don't have the time or energy for a longer session, start by exercising during the commercials. According to a May 2014 report from the ratings measurement firm Nielsen, broadcast networks averaged 14 minutes and 15 seconds of commercials per hour in 2013, and cable networks averaged 15 minutes and 38 seconds.
  • Gradually increase the length and intensity of your workouts until you are doing moderate to vigorous activity throughout an entire 30-minute show. Oftentimes people say that watching their favorite shows helps make their workout go by faster.
  • Choose an activity that keeps your head still so you can still focus on the screen. This could mean using a stationary bike, treadmill, elliptical machine, or even just walking in place.
  • Sit on an exercise ball rather than the couch or your favorite chair. This will help strengthen the muscles in your stomach and back while you are resting.
  • Keep a set of hand weights nearby. That way you can mix some simple strength training exercises into your routine almost as easily as lifting the remote.

Just a reminder, though, always check with your doctor before beginning a new type of exercise or increasing your amount of physical activity. Your doctor can help you create a safe exercise plan based on your needs, physical abilities, and fitness level.

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