Weight Loss and Maintenance by Al Coon

"Suddenly the child becomes comatose. He doesn't move a muscle. A stout drug couldn't do more to incapacitate this child."

"Unfortunately, television viewing is addictive...and most people would rather have a foot amputated than to give up the TV permanently. So, what can we do?"

"Keep in mind that just cutting back some will help. Each hour of television viewing that you replace with something else will pay off in many positive and even unexpected ways."

Al Coon Television and Weight Loss

When I was growing up I heard a lot of discussions on how television programming was just a mental desert and an ethical wasteland. But in spite of all that talk, the number of hours that Americans are devoting to this pastime have grown and grown. While the social impact of television is an important topic, we will leave that issue for other venues. However, there is another aspect of television viewing that we really should take into consideration, because it is closely related to weight loss.

One day Dotti and I went to our favorite restaurant—Sweet Tomatoes—for lunch. I had a Diet Snapple with my meal and when I took the cap off, flipped it over and read what was printed underneath, this is what I saw:

Real Fact #107

You burn more calories sleeping than watching TV

I am sure that you have seen the reason why for yourself. Take a 3 or 4 year old child that is impossible to contain—ready to pull your house down in his eagerness to explore—and put him in front of a kids' video on the television. Suddenly the child becomes comatose. He doesn't move a muscle. A stout drug couldn't do more to incapacitate this child. That is what the television does to viewers, and it isn't just to children.

Adults and children alike will sit virtually motionless while watching television, and do so for hours at a time, far longer than they could possibly do with any other waking activity.

And while you are in this extreme sedentary state, you are at the same time bombarded with triggers to eat. Food commercials, beer commercials, and dessert commercials pour into your unmoving lap, and beg you to eat. The programming provides you with an emotional rollercoaster ride, where you are taken to the height of joy and the depths of misery, along with the actors playing "let's pretend" with your mind. The comfort of food all too often is used to "help" us deal with these pretend traumatic conditions we are viewing. Also, the movie theater has conditioned us to mentally associate popcorn, soda, as well as Milk Duds and other candies with the act of "watching a movie." This adds even more to the mental desire to eat.

And while our metabolism is shut down and our appetites are being stimulated, the people we see on television present a very odd image of what is normal. The women are anorexic in appearance and this is held up as being "beautiful," the ideal. What we don't see is that even the actresses are in a desperate struggle to stay that thin, and a normal women has very little chance of ever getting that thin, even if it were desirable to do so. Alice found a more sensible arrangement in Wonderland that we find in the world of television viewing.

In the area of physical activity there is no waking (or even sleeping according to Snapple) activity that is worse for your physical conditioning, or less help in your weight loss journey, than watching television, and yet Americans spend the vast majority of their waking leisure hours doing just that.

A good test of how important television is to your life is to ask yourself the question: "What would I do if I couldn't watch TV for a week, a month, or a year?" Does the question hit a nerve, or make you feel uneasy? How would you fill the time?

It doesn't take much to top television viewing when you are looking for activities that burn more calories. Sitting at a computer burns half again as many calories as television viewing. Putting a puzzle together, and even reading will burn more calories.

I am often surprised how much of a workout I get from playing the guitar and singing. I have found that after an hour or two of that I am tired, and have even worked up a sweat. While you may not work up a sweat playing Monopoly or other board games, you will burn more calories than you will watching television.

And if you find a standing activity, it is even better—even something as light as playing croquet in the back yard, or shooting pool.

Unfortunately, television viewing is addictive (one Scientific American article(1) suggested that it literally presents the same symptoms as a chemical addiction in some people) and most people would rather have a foot amputated than to give up the TV permanently. So, what can we do?

We can set limits, and enforce them in our lives.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Never watch more than one or two hours a day. Turn the set off and leave it off the rest of the day.

  • Make TV free days. Tape shows that you simply must watch and view them all on one day of the weekend. The more days where the television is off the more your body will benefit.

  • Take on hobbies that cannot coexist with television viewing. For example take piano lessons, or learn to paint or make pottery.

  • Make habits that force television out of your daily life and into a controlled amount of viewing. Never just mindlessly turn on the television. Have a limited viewing schedule and stick to it. Make it a conscious effort to turn on the television, never a thoughtless action.

I think it is a clear indication of what television viewing is actually doing to us, when you consider that one activity that you almost never see on television is someone watching television! Watching the unmoving people who are watching television is boring. When a television story requires a TV to be on at all, perhaps so that the news can announce some plot tidbit for the camera; unlike in real life, the TV goes on, real and useful information is immediately presented, and then the TV goes right back off, so animated life can go on. The people who create television programming understand this. We need to as well.

You might be wondering what you could do to fill the time, if you were not watching television. Aside from the activities that I have already mentioned, it is a fact that boredom is a great motivator. You can only sit and do nothing for so long before your mind forces you to find something to do. If you fight off the urge to turn on the television you will find something else to do. Talking on the phone is better for your mind and body than watching television is. Even reading a book is an improvement. Visiting a friend, taking a walk, or straightening up the garage or spare room are all things that will increase your activity level over that of watching television. If you let your mind help you out of your boredom, you will find something that will occupy your time. (Remember that for thousands of years people did without television, and many of them enjoyed themselves! Big Smile )

Keep in mind that just cutting back some will help. Each hour of television viewing that you replace with something else will pay off in many positive and even unexpected ways. You might find more time to help your children with their homework, help them to master a new skill, or just get to know them better if you have those extra hours that are being spent on the television today. Those same children will remember those hours fondly for the rest of their lives!

The vast majority of Americans spend more of their leisure hours watching television than doing anything else. Since there is nothing that you can do that burns fewer calories, is it any wonder that the vast majority of Americans are overweight?

Even worse, it is happening to the children at a younger and younger age. Your kids will thank you one day if you break their television addiction early, and help them get the exercise that they need.

1. Television Addiction is no mere metaphor. The Scientific American; Feb. 2002. p. 74-80

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