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If I could pick one bad habit to magically remove from the world, I would pick bingeing of any and every kind. Bingeing is not just toxic to our health and productivity, it’s also addictive. If you go down this rabbit hole, coming out of it and getting back to a healthier lifestyle is going to be an uphill struggle.

Sitting in one place and watching episode after episode can lead to a massive decline in your mental, emotional, and physical health.

What happens when you binge-watch daily?

Sitting for long periods can increase the risk of metabolic disorders. According to research,  a day-long binge puts you at a 30% higher risk of getting diabetes, High blood pressure, and even stroke. Bingeing on TV shows for long hours (obviously) leads to a sedentary lifestyle decreasing the amount of exercise you get on a daily basis which leads to unhealthy weight gain, worsened by the slower metabolism. Most of us watch TV in ‘comfortable’ positions which when maintained for long hours leads to bad posture.

The blue light emitted by the screens can damage your retina, and shockingly enough, it can even penetrate your skin leading to premature ageing. “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”, as explained by dermatologist Dr. Justine Hextall.

That’s not all, binge-watching also delays the sleep cycle leading to a decline in the quality of sleep, and if we don’t get the rest we need, we may find ourselves getting anxious and depressed. The unhealthy snacking that accompanies bingeing doesn’t help either. Then, there’s the solitary nature of the activity. Most of us, binge-watch alone which may over time, lead to a feeling of isolation and worsened emotional health and wellbeing.

Related: How to relax before bedtime and sleep better naturally

Three years of Psychology is enough for me to know that bingeing is not healthy, but when I did a little research for the benefit of this article, I was amazed to learn just how much damage binge-watching can actually do to our bodies and mind. Honestly, it’s just not worth it, and here’s the kicker, when we press play on that next episode, we know that we’re making the wrong choice. A part of your brain tells you that, and the way your body feels at the end of a TV marathon makes it pretty obvious that you just indulged in something unhealthy, but we do it anyway.

So, why is binge-watching so addictive?

Here’s what happens to your brain when you binge-watch -

Apart from being entertaining, TV shows also give us an escape from the daily stresses of our life. We may even find a friend in the characters we watch adding to the fun of it all, but what makes it so addictive is the rush of dopamine we experience with each new episode.

Dopamine is a happy chemical manufactured by the body and used by the nervous system to telegraph a message or sensation of pleasure. Dr. Renee Carr, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist explains it best-

“When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge-watching, your brain produces dopamine. This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘This feels good. You should keep doing this!’[…] your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.”

And there’s more, According to Dr. Carr, “The neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as an addiction to binge-watching.”

While, you may think you’ve found some deep emotional connection with a character or the plot of the show, it could just be your brain keeping you hooked through the surge of pleasure experienced with each new episode. 

Your brain doesn’t discriminate between the experiences acquired through a show, read in a book, or experienced live which is why we get so deeply invested in the stories and the characters of the shows we watch.

You may also consider that if you get so emotionally invested in shows or its characters, you may have certain emotional needs that may be going unmet.

Now that we have a better understanding of what fuels binge-watching, let’s talk about how we can do it healthily. Of course, I would recommend not binge-watching at all, but we all know that’s not gonna work. On certain days, when we’re not feeling so great about ourselves, binge-watching really can be a saviour, so let’s do the next best thing and simply control the habit as best as we can.

Make sure to maintain enough control that your bad, unhealthy habits don’t start running your life for you.

How to binge-watch without jeopardising your health-

1. Combine it with other activities

This is not just about binge-watching, it’s also about the depression that sets in when you finish a series. It’s about that awful feeling that hits hard when you realise that you won’t be seeing any more of your favourite characters. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all been there!

It’s almost like our best friend moved far, far away to a part of the world with no cell towers.

To protect yourself from post-series blues, limit your emotional investment by limiting your focus. As you watch the show, try to do combine it with mindless or easy tasks like cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry etc. This not only splits your focus but also allows you to tick-off a few extra chores.

Better yet, you can combine binge-watching with exercise. As shared above, all the sitting that we do as we binge-watch slows down our metabolic rate so if you moved around as you binge-watched, you can enjoy the show while protecting your health. Instead of ending up with a large waist due to all the sitting, you’ll be in better shape than ever.

Related: 20 lifestyle changes to improve your mental and physical health

2. Set Limits before you start

Before you start the show, set certain limits. Before pressing play, either decide on a fixed number of episodes you’re going to watch or give yourself a time limit. Here’s what I usually do, as I am watching a show, I give myself a 60-minute time limit which, as most of the shows I watch have a 45-minute episode length, usually ends when I have just started on the second episode of the day. Once I have just started the second episode, I don’t stop at the 60-minute limit, instead, I stop when I come across a particularly enjoyable scene. It leaves me feeling all good and happy, and the next day I start with the same scene which means, I start on the same happy note.

If I ever hit a cliffhanger, I watch long enough to have it resolved before I turn-off my laptop. Get the closure you need and then, turn off the tv if you’ve hit your episode or time limit.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to a Daily System for Higher Productivity

3. Watch in groups

One of the worst things about binge-watching is how it isolates an individual which in turn increases their dependence on the show characters and story for connection. Perhaps, it’s the reason for the high stress, anxiety, and depression amongst the binge-watchers. In a study done by the University of Toledo, 142 out of 408 participants identified themselves as binge-watchers. This group reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than those who were not binge-watchers. According to Dr. Judy Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of the Psychological Healing Center in Sherman Oaks, CA, “We are wired to connect, and when we disconnect from humans and over-connect to TV at the cost of human connection, eventually we will ‘starve to death’ emotionally. Real relationships and the work of life is more difficult, but at the end of the day more enriching, growth-producing and connecting.”

If you must binge, do it with a group of people you like and then, instead of continuing with episode after episode, press pause and discuss the progression of the scene. You still get to do your favourite activity, and your sanity remains intact.

4. Eat Healthy and Drink lots of Water

As we have already covered, sitting down for long periods leads to a slower metabolism, and if you add junk food to the mix, you’re making a bad situation worse, the results of which will not be easy to reverse. Nutritionist expert, Mitzi Dulan has a solution, “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.”

A Healthline article with a list of healthy snacks for a TV Binge Watch

Apart from eating healthy, you must drink lots of water. If you’re drinking water, it will reduce the snacking as water tends to give a feeling of fullness, making it difficult to eat too much. Also, let’s not forget all the benefits of staying hydrated and then, there are all the pee breaks you’ll have to take. This may give you the space you need to snap out of the zombie-like state we tend to go into when bingeing a show.

5. Don’t let it impinge on your sleep schedule

Just like our eating habits, binge-watching has a very unhealthy effect on our sleep as well. We often trade sleep for episode after episode of our favourite show. This can play havoc with your life by causing cognitive impairment, weight gain, anxiety, glucose intolerance, and skin issues as well. If sleep loss becomes a part of your life for a considerable period, you may find yourself suffering from health issues that may even land you in the hospital.
Several studies have shown that poor sleeping patterns can cause weight gain and increased body mass index. A study published in the journal ‘Current Biology’ looked at the habits of 65,000 adults and found that people with different workday and weekend sleep schedules had tripled the odds of being overweight.

Sleep is extremely important for the healthy functioning of our body, but despite that, we are all too casual about it. I often go without sleep when I’m working on time-sensitive projects, but to give up sleep for Netflix,  oh, hell no! I hate to be so blunt, but you’ve to be either extremely irresponsible or plain stupid to do that. If you’re guilty of this behaviour, I’m going to put it down to ignorance, but now that you know just how dangerous sleep loss can be, please correct your sleep habits. Give your body the rest it needs.

Set a sleep schedule and make it a hard limit. It’s like waking up in the morning when you don’t want to, but you have places to go so you force yourself to simply jump out of bed and immediately, get as far away from it as you can. Do the same thing with binge-watching, set an alarm and as soon as it goes off, turn off the tv and the lights. Snuggle down into your bed. Although, if you want to improve the quality of your sleep, watching TV right before bed is not a good idea. It will make it hard for you to fall asleep, and it will also disrupt your sleep cycle. Ideally, you should put away your gadgets at least 30 minutes before bed.

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6. Turn on night shift setting

Pre-mature ageing and dry, fatigued retinas are some of the other downsides of exposing yourself to the High-Energy visible wavelength (blue light) emitted by your television, phone, and laptop screens. The best solution is spending less time with your devices, but it’s not exactly a practical solution because we need technology for work as well as play.
Apart from taking a break every 20-30 minutes, you can turn on the night shift setting on your devices or lower the screen brightness.

7. Balance it out with healthy habits

If you’re going to binge-watch, it’s only fair that you counter its effects with an equal amount of time spent doing activities that are beneficial to your body and mind. To improve your metabolism, do cardio daily. It will also improve your heart health, body fat percentage, and boost your mood.

Give your brain a break with meditation or doing nothing at all, that’s an idea!

You can also explore other avenues of fun like board games, hanging out with friends, dance parties, etc. Every once in a while, switch things up. Eventually, you’ll have a whole bunch of go-to activities, and you won’t rely on TV shows for escape.

8. Track the time spent binge-watching

Do you know exactly how much time in a week you spend binge-watching, and how much time you spend doing things that add value to your life?

Download apps that track how long you spend on certain websites and apps or simply note down the time you start watching TV and the time you stop. There is a possibility that if you total up the exact amount of time spent indulging in mindless entertainment and compare it the to time spent being productive, you may be shocked into quitting. It may be the push you need to reevaluate your choices and design a schedule suited to a more meaningful life.

Sometimes, all we really need is a wake-up call.

9. 15-minute stretch breaks

Netflix encourages its viewers to stay glued to the screen by starting the next episode as soon as the first one finishes. They don’t give you any time to consider that what you’re doing may not be the best use of your time. Take back the control, and after each episode, step away for 15 minutes. Stretch your body. Walk around a little and as you do that, ask yourself if you really want to go back to the show.

Ask yourself if the feeling of pleasure can be derived from a different, healthier source, and if the story really is all that captivating. Consider all the things you can get done in the time you’re spending hooked to the tv. Assess your body and mind for how it’s actually feeling. Just 60 minutes sprawled out on a couch are enough to make your body slow and sluggish, and your mind is probably aching for a break. Sometimes, we press play out of sheer habit and for want of anything better to do. So, just take a beat and think about what you’re doing.

10. Use only one device and create settings that force a schedule

Use only one device for binge-watching, and don’t even install apps like Netflix, Prime on devices not meant for TV viewing. This encourages you to find something else to do when you have free moments here and there, like for example, when you’re commuting. It may even compel you to sit quietly with your thoughts instead of constantly using your phone as a distraction.

You can also install Stay Focused, a chrome extension that limits the time you can spend on certain websites. You can customise the settings so that the extension allows you to watch TV shows for a limited amount of time, blocking access once the limit has been reached. Explore the extension to know more.

You know, it’s not the worst idea to just sit with your thoughts. Considering all the damage binge-watching can do to you, maybe it’s worth it to embrace boredom. I know that Dopamine fuels binge behaviour, but there’s another factor at play; we are all desperate to fill each waking moment with activity. It’s almost like we’re afraid of our thoughts.

If you want to cultivate a healthy, purpose-driven life, you need to do more than forcibly control your binge-behaviour. Explore mindfulness, creativity, and most importantly, seek connections with your fellow human beings. Yes, life is short, but if you must fill each moment with activity, then make it something that actually adds meaning to your very valuable life.

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