Binge-watching your favorite television show might seem like a great way to relax after a long week, but spending hours on the couch can actually hurt your brain.
It's important to recognize that the brain is not an isolated organ – it responds to its environment. When we binge-watch, we create an unhealthy environment for the brain because we're sitting for long periods of time, isolating ourselves from social activities and eating large amounts of unhealthy food."
Randall Wright, M.D., neurologist, Houston Methodist
When you let auto play start the next episode so you can find out what happens in the cliffhanger, your brain receives positive feedback. This instant gratification is similar to gambling where even after a win, you are not satisfied and want to continue playing – or in this case, you are not satisfied with stopping after episode five and want to continue watching. This cycle coupled with the side effects of binge-watching can lead to unhealthy changes in your brain and body if you binge-watch often.
The good news is that you can have your television show and be healthy too. To offset the four worst side effects of binge-watching, Wright suggests:
1. Pick a bedtime: Sacrificing hours of sleep for binge-watching can make the brain slow and sluggish the next day. On top of feeling tired and unfocused, not getting enough sleep can affect our memory, mood, immune system, heart health and hormone balance.
“The average adult needs between seven to nine hours of sleep every night,” Wright said. “Before you start your show, determine what time you need to go to bed to get enough sleep. It might be helpful to set a bedtime alarm so that you don’t lose track of time and to help you stick to that decision.”
2. Prioritize exercise: Like sleep, exercise may be postponed in favor of binge-watching.
“Recent research has shown that the brain can generate new cells and connections through a process known as neurogenesis, and exercise is key to that process,” Wright said. “Taking a walk around your neighborhood before binge-watching and standing for five minutes during every episode can help keep your body and brain active.”
3. Invite friends: While you might enjoy binge-watching or find it is a good way to reduce stress, spending hours with the television as company is not good for your mental health.
“If you're watching TV for six hours, that's six hours of not interacting with others,” Wright said. “Six hours may not seem like a lot, but if you binge-watch regularly, the hours alone add up and can lead to depression and other mental health issues. Balancing time alone with the television and time spent with loved ones is the key to avoiding social isolation.”
Wright recommends inviting friends over to watch shows with you or making plans to spend time with loved ones before or after a binge-watching session.
4. Smart snacking: While unhealthy snacks are easy to grab while binge-watching, opt for something with more nutritional value.
“Hummus and vegetables, edamame or fruits are great snacks if you crave something to eat while binge-watching,” Wright said. “Try to stay away from binge-eating salty, fatty foods when you sit down to watch television.”
Wright also recommends only filling up the snack bowl once. When the brain is focused on what we are watching, we tend to eat on autopilot and end up eating more than we normally would.
“Binge-watching itself is not bad,” Wright said. “It becomes problematic when watching a third, fourth or fifth episode replaces healthy activities. But if you incorporate these tips into your binge-watching routine, you can create lasting healthy habits and still enjoy the occasional binge-watching session without hurting your brain.