July 07, 2014

Does Watching TV Give You Cancer?

Retro TV
By Crabby McSlacker

So we've all seen the studies that say the more time you spend sitting, the more likely you are to acquire various dire diseases and croak at a younger age. (Which is part of the reason I'm writing this post using a stand-up desk).

However, a recent research review of 43 observational studies suggests there is a particular association between time spent sitting watching TV and cancer.


Apparently there is a much higher correlation between sitting time and colon or endometrial cancer if you plant your ass in front of a television set, as opposed to sitting around doing other things besides watching tv.

So how seriously should we take this?

First off...

Don't Forget the Ever-Annoying Confusion between Causation and Correlation!

I got this study from Dr. Weil, who sometimes has smart things to say and is other times so busy hawking supplements he forgets to take his large bearded head out of his posterior.

He concludes from this study that "excessive hours in front of the tube can dramatically increase the risk of colon or endometrial cancer." (And then at the end of his article he directs you to his YouTube channel. Which, presumably won't kill you if you watch it on your computer, but hey, I guess you'd better watch the f--ck out if you want to cue the Doc up on your TV monitor?)

Anyway, I suppose it's possible that the TV itself is somehow sending out evil cancer beams that your laptop or phone isn't. But it's also possible that people who choose to watch a crapload of TV, as opposed to doing other things, are a different population than people who don't.

TV addicts could, in general, be lower income or older or fatter or sicker or less well-educated than the folks who are doing crossword puzzles or reading or tweeting. And any of those things could correlate with higher cancer risk. In fact, this seems highly likely to me--perhaps because I'm a very selective TV watcher myself.  It fuels a sense of smugness to think we folks who don't watch much TV are a bit more clever and resourceful and proactive about healthy living.

But...  there are still so many studies out there about the health benefits of getting off your butt, that if you are indulging in tons of tube time, you may want to take corrective measures.

tv in trash
photo: Dave Bledsoe

But I Think There's Still A Lot to Love About TV!

It seems to me that an hour or so in front of a television show that makes you think, or moves you, or amuses you, or brings you closer to your loved ones as you watch together, can be a lovely healthy part of the day.

You can watch TV while on a treadmill, or stretching, or getting other stuff like ironing done. (Yeah right, as though I ever do any ironing.)

The Lobster and I often watch TV as we eat dinner, which I guess is a big no-no if you've got kids, but we don't, so screw it.  Nurse Jackie? House of Cards? Even the soapy Nashville?  You betcha, bring it on!

In fact, our current obsession, which I love so much I have to gush about for a bit, is called Last Tango in Halifax. It's British, the first season is on Netflix, and the second season is now rolling out on PBS.

Please don't sue me PBS
for promoting your lovely show

It's an extremely well-written "romantic drama," one in which the quirky main characters tend to remain likable even when they're at cross-purposes or doing stupid things. Best of all, unlike American shows, all the actors look like real people, complete with wrinkles and sags and bad hair days.

Anyway, my take on tv watching is the usual boring conclusion that "moderation" makes more sense than a "good" versus "evil" all or nothing approach.

But what do you guys think? Do you watch much TV?


  1. I'm guessing this conclusion is because many excessive TV watchers don't get out and about much. No question, humans were made to be active so the less activity we have the more problems that will arise.

    In my opinion, Dr. Weil has better publicity than credentials. I don't think he did much beyond medical school when it comes to training, although he did go to a very famous medical school.

  2. I am a bit of a TV junkie. Reading and watching TV are two of my favourite ways to relax. How much time I spend doing that depends on what else is going on though. I do often watch TV on the treadmill as well.

    So I don't know - is sitting and watching TV worse that sitting and reading? Are there cancer rays coming from my TV? Mostly, it seems like everything causes cancer these days and we are all doomed....

  3. What do most of us do when we feel sick? Sleep and watch TV because you don't have the energy for anything else and it will distract you from how you feel. I remember I was very sick for about a week when I was a kid and at one point I was carried out to a lounger in the backyard and allowed to sit out there for a few hours. I don't remember much about being sick that time but I remember a lot about the details of sitting outside. I guess that's my TV.

  4. On some days I watch a lot of TV, usually movies, but those days aren't frequent, and at the end of the day I always feel like I pretty much wasted it. Most days I watch something while I have breakfast, then it's off until dinner time. We do always watch while we eat dinner--we record everything and are always so far behind, we have to watch to keep up! (It's typical to see Christmas ads and show themes while we watch in June..Last week we finally finished the most recent season of Mad Men...) In cooler weather I always knit while I watch, often working on charity projects, so at least that TV time isn't quite as wasted. I remember reading somewhere long ago that your brain is actually less active while you watch TV than it is if you are sitting and staring at a blank wall. Not sure if that's true...

  5. Just binge-watched a Jane Campion series (BBC) on Netflix called : Top of the Lake ( 7 episodes)
    THAT was as good as time spent with a novel.

    1. I just went to look this up. Sounds interesting! Nothing like a TV watching = cancer post to let me know all the extra TV I have been missing. :)

  6. I was raised on TV. I love, LOVE TV and am not afraid to admit it. My Skype picture is a test pattern, so much is my love of television. Ok - mainly, I love SOME stuff on TV and watch, re-watch, and watch again those things I love. I could probably recite the dialogue verbatim, if prompted. I know the words to the theme songs.

    It's my "happy place" :).
    And now this news :(.

    Yeah - kind of like smoking. We all knew/suspected it just ain't good for a person and yet it is so alluring and addictive. Damn.

    btw - the story of the inventor of television (Philo T. Farnsworth - and, yeah... what a name!) is, in and of itself worthy of a mini-series, at very least! Here's the name of a person who literally changed the cultural landscape of the planet and no one knows who he was!.....

  7. PS - If I had to pick a character to be from Last Tango (which IS great!), it would be queen of the snappy one-liner comeback - Caroline.

  8. While i'm not against a small amount of TV in theory, i quit watching 14 years ago. No, i don't miss it, yes, i keep up with the news on the radio, and i figure if the world ends, someone will let me know.

  9. Well... I have to admit that hubby & I record a ton of shows BUT we watch at night together at the end of the day so it is not an all day thing. I like the escape part of it, laughter for the funny shows - I think there are way too many variable on this one! :)

  10. Bless his heart, that was not Dr. Weil's best work. Health risks of watching tv, and then back to health risks for being sedentary, then a plug for relaxation techniques, then back to sedentary. I'm not the best at decoding science, but I had trouble even following his point on the TV watching: "To make matters worse, the researchers calculated that for each two-hour increase in daily time spent simply sitting, the colon cancer risk rises by eight percent and the endometrial cancer risk by 10 percent. They also found that when the sitting was done in front of the television screen, colon cancer risk increased by 54 percent and the endometrial cancer risk by 66 percent." Is he comparing increase per two-hour increments, increase overall, how much sitting ... ?

    Another article clarified it a little bit ("People who spent the most time sitting during the day had a 24 percent increased risk of getting colon cancer compared to those who logged the least number of hours in a chair, according to the study. When the researchers looked just at time spent watching TV, the risk jumped even more. Those who clocked the most hours glued to the tube had a 54 percent increased risk of colon cancer compared to those who watched the least.") as well as offering some theory as to why TV watching might be different than regular sitting ("That may be because viewers tend to consume unhealthy snacks and drinks while watching TV, said study author Daniela Schmid, an epidemiologist at the University of Regensburg in Germany.").

    But I lurve my TV, it's true.

    TV recommendation for adventurous Cranketeers with the Esquire channel: Boundless. Two Canadians -- one in his mid-30s and one in his late 40s and both with incredible stamina -- participate in all sorts of endurance races around the world -- ultramarathons in Africa and Mongolia, Hawaiian stand up paddleboarding, multi-day paddling down the Amazon, crazy time-limited race around mountains in Scotland. They're fun guys and it's interesting to see what these different challenges are like. Sometimes they do well, and sometimes not ...

    1. I LOVE Boundless!! Turbo really wears his heart on his sleeve and I love that they are both just regular people (not elite athletes).

  11. Soooooo...what increased the risk of colon or endometrial cancer before the big box was invented? That's my question of the day…and it is rhetorical.

    I am a fan of the television. We have a great channel called Oasis that has wonderful nature programs and I get to see the world, the ocean and fascinating creatures without having to get on an airplane.

    I also enjoy some of the silly sitcoms and I may have a little crush on the star of The Mentalist.

    Another thing I enjoy is the different music stations we get. Spa music, rock, reggae, dance…whatever mood I am in, I can hear it!

  12. I was so sure I answered this earlier. I don't watch TV in the summer except for the news while we eat dinner. September to May, however, is a totally different story. I have the shows I like and will watch no matter what they give me.

  13. Well, I love watching TV!! Growing up we rarely watched it and never during a meal. Now, we don't watch it often during dinner but other meals are fair game!! And, in the evenings - almost always - after a day on the go, I'm always ready to plunk myself in front of mindless TV with my laptop and the rest of the family usually feels the same. Plus, you know I love my hours on the treadmill watching reality TV shows!
    Pretty sure that for years everyone said Diet Coke would cause cancer too but I really haven't seen a direct correlation:)

  14. Death Ride GrandmaJuly 7, 2014 at 7:53 PM

    Actually, watching TV and catching up on movies is one of the things I hope to do when I retire in a couple of years. My cycling obsession began with a stationary bike & I got myself to do it by copying our Beta tapes to V H S ( remember those? ) and editing out the commercials. Then I started riding outside & time filled up & there just isn't time these days. My husband is a major Netflix customer. I think I have managed to watch about one movie a year. But I really think it's something to look forward to. Sure, some people watch too much, don't even realize how much of their time evaporates that way. But from what I hear, there is really some great stuff there.

    Not worth much from a scientific perspective, but lots of my relatives watch plenty of TV, and although we seem to be pretty receptive to cancers, no one has had any in the digestive system.

    Thanks, Crabby, for your question. We can't be reminded too often that a statistical relationship is NOT a cause and effect relationship!

  15. Correlation and causation, oh, my.
    I've been a Netflix customer since 2001, when I first got a computer with a DVD player. Before that, I last had a television in 1996. I would like to watch more tv than I do (the latest disc of Warehouse 13 has been sitting on my desk for more than a month) but for me, even with captions, it takes far more concentration than reading, and it can't be interrupted at random the way reading can. When I first started watching DVDs, I hoped it could--just hit Pause and go do something else and then come back later--but that doesn't work for me.
    As for watching during meals? No, no, you fools, meals are for reading!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  16. So crap, crap, crap, so many great comments and what a frustrating time to be having computer and internet issues. Wanted to reply to many of these! I wish I was better at staying connected via phone but I still seem to suck at that. Really appreciate your patience when I go AWOL.

    Comcast has been infuriating lately but my laptop also had a virus or two so I had to hand it over to a Computer Dude--who was really nice but also managed to remove my browser and shell program and all the programs I've downloaded in the last year. SIgh.

    Still troubleshooting between comcast service interruptions, modem weirdness and PC issues, so if you don't hear from me... I'm off somewhere beating my head against the wall.


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