What Binge Watching Actually Does to Your Brain

December 23rd 2015

Alex Mierjeski

The holidays are once again upon us, a time of year that for many involves the shucking of responsibilities, overeating, and binge watching — countless hours spent cycling through episode after episode, the autoplay function comfortably in control.

But recent research suggests that binge watching may be just as mindless of an activity as many likely believe — even worse. Scientists now believe that sitting and watching TV for hours, especially when paired with a lack of physical activity, could be linked to lower brain function.

Related: 82.7 Million Americans Did Not Participate in Physical Activity Last Year

That news shouldn't surprise anyone. But it should cause at least some concern, since binge watching is such a popular new American pastime.

And cognitive impairment could be occurring earlier on, thanks to binge watching, according to researchers at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education. "[This inactivity] affects cognitive functioning even younger than we realized," one of the study's researchers, Tina Hoang, told TIME.

Related: Your Late Night Phone Use Is Probably Dangerous

Hoang and others looked at data from more than 3,200 18 to 30-year-olds collected over a 25-year period. They found that those who reported watching more than three hours a day — that is the weekend average for Americans, what with the runaway popularity of hour-long-show series released all at once — and doing less than two-and-a-half hours of exercise per week, had the worst cognitive function. That meant weaker memories, slower processing, and stunted planning and task completion capabilities.

The study's results are inconclusive, of course, and there could be many factors that led to its results, including whether people with already-low brain function are more likely to binge watch, or if lower function is influenced by other side effects of sedentary behavior. On the other end, those who have high cognitive function might say they exercise often and watch less TV.

Related: Staying Positive When You're Around Toxic People

But if anecdotal evidence from your own hours spent on the couch, eyes glazed over, trudging through the fifth, sixth, seventh episode (and beyond) isn't enough, there are plenty of other reasons not to binge watch this holiday season. If you're trying to avoid the stress of your extended family by sequestering yourself with a new TV show, for example, you could be setting yourself up for a bout of insomnia.

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