Belly up to the TV: Binge watching could lead to more stomach fat

Photo courtesy DreamstimeTV watching is linked to higher levels of belly fat, a University of Minnesota study shows. 

Binge watchers, you may want to hit the pause button for this: watching TV has been linked to more belly fat — even for people who exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.

For every hour and a half spent watching TV, abdominal fat increased by about 3 cubic centimeters, according to a study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Abdominal fat is a concern because it is a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.

Researchers looked at belly fat levels in more than 3,000 middle-aged men and women. They asked them how much time they spent doing six different sedentary behaviors — reading a book, using a computer, talking or texting on the phone, sitting in a car, doing paper work, and watching television — to see what, if any, effect the activity had on abdominal fat levels.

"TV was the only sedentary behavior out of those six that was associated with belly fat," said Kara Whitaker, the study's lead author.

Even more surprising: when the researchers examined all of the sedentary behaviors combined, the association between abdominal fat was not as strong as it was with only TV watching, Whitaker said.

"It's really television time that seems to be driving this association with belly fat," she said.

The results were published in the latest issue of the journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

One possible explanation for the study's findings is that TV got more of the blame. Because people remember which shows they watched, they are better at recalling their TV viewing time compared with other activities, Whitaker said.

Commercials also may play a role. "Seeing those ads showing food can prime you to eat more later, which could affect your abdominal fat levels," Whitaker said.

So cut down on TV screen time, she advised. And when you are watching, don't just sit there. Hop on an exercise bike during the show or at least get up and move around during commercials.

"My mom marches in place while she's watching TV," Whitaker said.

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