Binge Better: 11 Ways to Be Healthier When Watching Too Much TV

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Getty and HBO

This week, we're providing a series of Vulture Hacks: expert advice, gear guides, and recommendations to help you maximize your entertainment experience. Today Jeff Wilser, the author of Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life and The Good News About What's Bad for You … , offers tips on how to stay healthy while bingeing TV.

Binge-watching is bad for you. Gobs of studies have linked TV — or “excessive” TV — to things like diabetes, blood clots, and lower sperm counts. “Every single hour of TV viewed after the age of 25 reduces the viewer's life expectancy by 21.8 minutes,” one study glumly concludes. Another asks, “Netflix and kill?”

Little surprise, then, that experts offer a very simple prescription: Don’t binge. Watch less TV.

Okay, fair, fine. That advice is all well and good, but we’re living in the real world. Let’s be realistic. Saying “Don’t binge-watch” is like saying “The only safe sex is abstinence.” Instead, to extend the metaphor, the question should be: If we can't abstain from binge-watching, what's the equivalent of protection?

TVs and devices don't have some magical power to turn you into dust; the problem is that viewing is linked with sedentary behavior, overeating, and decreased sleeping. But the key word is linked. Most studies show a link, or a correlation, between TV and bad outcomes, not a cause. Outliers exist. Healthy people can watch TV and remain healthy — especially if they practice some of these 11 tips.

1. Eat frozen grapes.
You'll be shocked to learn that binge-watching can trigger binge-eating. “People tend to eat junk food while watching TV,” says Dr. Frank Hu, senior author of a seminal study linking TV to diabetes. “They’re eating more unhealthy foods. That’s a couch-potato lifestyle.”

But it doesn’t have to be. We can buck the trend. Nutritionist expert Mitzi Dulan gives us a game plan: “Make real meals, so it doesn’t turn into a total munch-fest. Start with an omelette or some eggs; we want good protein. Avoid big bags of food; bring portion-controlled single servings.” For snacking, she recommends vegetables and hummus — but realistically, who wants to eat carrots when watching Game of Thrones? So she also suggests plain popcorn, black-bean chips, fresh strawberries, cottage cheese (gross, but okay), diced watermelon, and, best of all, frozen grapes. “The grapes are perfect," she explains. "They’re like a mini-sorbet: cold and satisfying without added sugar.”

2. Press "pause" regularly …
We sit on our butts when we watch TV, and that causes our metabolism to slow. Yet an experiment from Australia gives a sliver of hope: Researchers used accelerometers to track the movements of, well, lazy people who sat around a lot, and they found that a “higher number of breaks in sedentary time was beneficially associated with waist circumference.” In other words: The more you move, the smaller your jeans.

So take a break. Take them frequently. “While the ideal break frequency hasn’t been completely answered by the research, most TV shows are 22 minutes or 44 minutes, and that’s actually a pretty good interval,” reasons Dr. Bonny Rockette-Wagner, an expert on sedentary behavior and diabetes prevention. Divide the binge into chunks. After each show, she recommends getting up from the couch and doing … anything. Push-ups. Stretching. A walk around the block. “Standing is better than sitting, and moving is better than standing. Do something to get up and moving.”

3. … or stay active while you watch …
“Your baseline metabolic rate [BMR] is very low when people are sitting on the couch,” explains Dr. Hu, adding that even driving and reading are more physically active. So in addition to taking breaks, you can boost your BMR by keeping busy while you’re catching up on BoJack Horseman. Superhumans could opt for a five-hour walk on a treadmill, but we mortals can do something as simple as everyday chores.

“Here's the thing about mindless chores — you usually have attention to spare,” says motivation expert Chris Bailey, author of the Productivity Project. “So while you focus on a show, you can mindlessly keep up with these maintenance tasks — like doing laundry, working out, or doing the dishes — that require a good deal of your time, but only a fraction of your attention.”

4. … and make time to be very active when you're not watching.
It’s a tempting thought: If I know I’m going to bang out The Night Of in a single weekend, can I offset the damage by going to the gym?

Yes and no.

Plenty of studies suggest that even when we exercise regularly, too much sitting can still shorten our lifespan. A more recent meta-analysis, however, found that “high levels of moderate intensity physical activity (ie, about 60–75 min per day) seem to eliminate the increased risk of death associated with high sitting time.” But there’s a catch: If your binges are five hours and up, even an hour of hard-core exercise might not be enough to undo the damage of sitting. They conclude that “high activity level attenuates, but does not eliminate the increased risk associated with high TV-viewing time.”

5. Remember 20-20-20 vision.
Phones, tablets, and laptops emit something called high-energy visible (HEV) wavelengths, or “blue light,” that can, over time, wreak havoc on the retina. Our eyes can get dry, irritated, fatigued, and we’re less likely to blink.

The hack: Use what Dr. Christopher Starr, an ophthalmologist at Weill Cornell Medical College, calls the “20-20-20” technique: Every 20 minutes, you should glance away from the screen and “look at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds or more.” This gives your eyes a chance to recover. “In addition," Starr adds, "it's important to remember to blink with a normal frequency.” (We now live in a world where we need reminders to blink. Coming soon from Apple: iBlink, which sends you a reminder every three seconds.)

6. Dim the screen.
Not yet concerned about the effects of bingeing on your appearance? Consider, then, that extending viewing can lead to a premature aging of the skin, or what some have called “Netflix Face.” This, too, is caused by HEV exposure. “HEVs have a long wavelength of 400 to 500 nanometers and can penetrate deep into the skin,” explains dermatologist Dr. Justine Hextall. “This deep penetration causes free-radical damage in the lower layers of the skin, which has all the scaffolding, such as collagen and elastin. Once these structures are damaged, we see sagging and wrinkling.”

Solution: Lower the screen’s brightness. Most devices have a setting that dials down the blue waves — on the iPhone it’s called “Night Shift.” Other options include anti-glare screens, filters, and stepping away from that screen once in a while.

7. Binge mindfully.
Chris Bailey, the productivity expert, once conducted an experiment: In one month he watched 128 hours of Netflix, curious to see how it would impact his mind-set. His advice? “To counteract the negative effects of binge-watching on your energy and motivation, it’s worth setting a few intentions beforehand,” Bailey tells me. “Before you sit down to watch a few (or several) episodes of a show, think for a second about what you plan on watching, how many episodes you reasonably have time for, what you'll do afterward, and so on."

While the idea of planning your binge sessions with that level of detail may seem unappealing, Bailey says it will enhance your experience. "It will actually help you feel less guilty about binge-watching, because you'll have decided ahead of time how unproductive you plan to be," he explains. "This will increase your enjoyment that much more, since you’ll silence the nagging voice at the back of your head."

8. Drink water — lots of it.
Stay hydrated. “Drink ice-cold water, since it has been shown to help boost metabolism slightly,” coaches Mitzi Dolan, the nutritionist. The theory is that when the water is cold, your body has to work harder to warm it up, burning a few extra calories. (The science on this is iffy, but it's water — it won't hurt.) More important, when you’re drinking water, you’re not drinking soda or beer or the typical calorie magnets that come with bingeing. Dolan’s rule of thumb: Take your weight in pounds, then divide it by two. Then drink that number of ounces. 

As a bonus side effect, this will force you to frequently get up and go to the bathroom, which gets you moving.

9. Consider an actual TV.
Whether you binge on a laptop, tablet, phone, or an actual honest-to-God television like our grandparents used is a matter of preference and convenience, though picking the TV might have a sneaky upside.

“The advantage of having a screen further away is that the eye muscles don't have to focus as hard," explains Dr. Starr. "When an object, like a computer, is near to the eyes then we need to ‘accommodate’ to keep it in focus. TV screens are generally further away, so eye strain and reduced blinking rates are probably less of an issue.” 

10. Push your brain.
Will TV rot our brains? That’s what we’ve been taught, and one study found that excessive TV watching is linked with poor cognitive function later in life. Yet more recently, scientists actually scanned peoples’ brains, and, as Scientific American puts it, they “conclude that the entire body of research up to now has overlooked an important confounding variable, heredity, that could call into question the conventional wisdom that TV is bad for the brain.” (In other words, prior studies might have jumbled correlation and causation.)

The jury is still out. But if you’re worried about brain rot, consider using a rewards system: For every episode of Luke Cage, force yourself to do something that’s more intellectually active: chess, crossword puzzles, or something totally crazy, like reading.

11. Go the fuck to sleep.
A 2013 study confirmed what we basically already knew: When kids watch TV late at night, they get less sleep. “People spend too much time watching TV at night, and that makes them sleep-deprived,” says Dr. Hu. There are two problems here:

1) We stay up later to watch Just one more episode, which soon becomes Okay okay, just one more, ad infinitum.
2) The screens themselves can flummox your production of melatonin, which regulates your sleep cycle. 

The hack? If you want to binge, fine, but don’t let it cut into your sleep, and flip off the screen 30 minutes before bed. Consider reading, writing, or quiet reflection, perhaps about the remaining contents of your viewing queue.