Binge Watching Affects Cognitive Function, According To Some Science We Might Want To Ignore

If you’re looking forward to binge watching your favorite new show this weekend, a recent study may have you rethinking your plan (or at least feeling guilty about it and then doing it anyway). Research from the Northern California Institute for Research and Education has found that binge watching may negatively affect cognitive function. The fact that a combination of high-volume TV watching and limited physical activity leads to cognitive decline may not be particularly shocking, but what may surprise you is that researchers found these effects occurring well before subjects hit middle age. That’s right — the nonstop Outlander marathon you had penciled in for Saturday may actually hurt your brain.

According to Time, the researchers looked at data from a study conducted over 25 years among more than 3,200 subjects between the ages of 18 and 30. The participants who experienced the most dramatic deterioration in their cognitive functioning were those watched the most TV and got the least exercise, usually sitting in front of the tube for more than three hours a day and doing physical activities for less than two and a half hours every week.

So what does “decline in cognitive functioning” actually mean? Time reports that subjects who did little physical activity and watched more than three hours of TV a day “had weaker working memories, slower processing speed and worse executive function (ability to plan and complete tasks) than their peers, even adjusting for education. Their verbal memory, however, seemed to be unaffected.” Participants in the study with a high ratio of TV time to exercise were also “twice as likely to do poorly on tests of brain performance than their peers.” So, you know, it’s not good.

Other studies have found a connection between sedentary lifestyles and cognitive decline among older people, but this study suggests that that decline starts early. Tina Hoang, one of the researchers in the project, told Time, “[This inactivity] affects cognitive functioning even younger than we realized.”

The study doesn’t definitively conclude that it’s the TV that causes the problem. There are a lot of factors in play here, and multiple ways that the data could be interpreted. Time points out, for example, that sitting in front of the TV for long periods and not exercising could lead to other issues, like cardiac problems, obesity, or depression, which can in turn impact brain function. Or the problem could be that people who have lower cognitive abilities in the first place are the ones most likely to watch a lot of TV without a lot of physical movement. Nevertheless, we know that having a physically active lifestyle benefits health in a lot of ways, so we should all consider curbing our binge-watching habits.

So what’s the take away here? You certainly don’t need to deny yourself your favorite Scottish time traveling romance, but you may want to think about spacing out the episodes over more than a weekend. And in the breaks between? Go for some long walks.

Images: IFC Original Productions; Giphy