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They Like to Watch

A new study at UVM correlates TV time with eating, sleeping and, well, moving


Published March 19, 2008 at 5:23 a.m.

  • Michael Tonn

You may have seen them tacked between “Apartment for Rent” signs and Club Metronome fliers, particularly if you’re given to wandering on the University of Vermont campus. The slightly oversized posters read:

Are you a healthy adult between the ages of 21 and 65? Do you watch at least 3 hours of TV per day on average? Would you like to know how watching TV affects your diet?

What sounds like a fairly pedestrian fact-finding pitch is actually part of a groundbreaking study launched by UVM’s Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences. Funded by the university and the USDA, and aiming to define the effects of reducing TV-viewing time on diet, physical activity and sleep patterns, the so-called “TView” research project has no precedent in the scientific community. As such, it is a coup for department chair Jean Harvey-Berino and doctoral student and study administrator Jennifer Otten.

While there’s been no shortage of research into the correlation between TV viewing and weight gain in children, no study has expanded to include adult test subjects, nor has any tracked sleep patterns. Most studies have relied on self-reporting rather than more reliable data to determine both viewing and eating habits. Each of those informational deficits is addressed by the TView study, which will continue through 2008.

A projected 44 men and women will participate; all will be overweight — with a body mass index of 25 to 50 — though otherwise healthy. And all, it seems, will have a certain amount of good humor: They’ll agree to wear an accelerometer to measure physical activity and to have a TV cut-off box installed in their set’s power source. Subjects will take frequent calls from researchers to report their dietary habits, will maintain a sleep log, and will welcome researchers into their homes three times for data-reporting visits.

The study will play out in two stages. The first three weeks will establish a baseline of subjects’ current TV-viewing, physical activity, eating and sleeping patterns. In the remaining three weeks, researchers will observe the effect reduced television viewing has on those parameters. Only half the subjects will actually have their TV hours reduced, however, in part to control for the possibility that simply knowing they are observed will change their behavior.

“No study has been conducted that had this sort of access to people’s homes,” Otten affirms. “Previously, data was typically self-reported about TV watching, which — as you might imagine — has some inconsistencies to it.”

The study employs an already-in-use parental device known as a “Bob” (made by Hopscotch Technology of Boulder, Colorado) that regulates the time a TV can remain on. By adding a single chip, the UVM researchers turned the popular screen-time controller into a data input and retrieval source. The gadget now tracks both duration of TV watching and when most of the viewing is concentrated — say, Sunday sports programs or a “Law and Order” marathon. Fans of “Miss America: Reality Check” needn’t be embarrassed; “Bob” can’t identify what is being watched, just how long the set is on.

“What we are trying to do is to begin to actually characterize sedentary behavior in adults,” says Harvey-Berino. “We may know how much TV adults watch, thanks to the [Nielsen Media Research] people, but what we don’t know is the relationship between not moving and eating and sleep patterns.”

Of course, the time spent “not moving” can also be attributed to use of video games, computers, PDAs, cellphones and the like — even books. But TV still rules, apparently, when it comes to maintaining human immobility.

“TV actually trumps computer time by 10 to 1,” offers Otten. “Computer time is going up, to be sure, but both Census and Bureau of Labor statistics say that TV is what we’re principally sitting in front of in the house.”

As for the study’s insistence that subjects be overweight, Otten notes that the objective is simply to test average people. Sadly, the average American is overweight — 66 percent of us, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preven-tion. Though weight is measured at different points during the study, its relative brevity makes actual poundage less crucial than data related to activity, diet and sleep.

Can merely reducing the time people spend watching television result in an instant increase in their physical activity? Will subjects eat more or less? Better or worse? Does less TV translate into more, and better-quality, sleep? Being conscientious scientists, the UVM researchers are tight-lipped about the results so far, but Harvey-Berino ventures a guess.

“There’s already an established link between reducing kids’ TV time and them eating less,” she observes. “Interesting-ly, it’s not that they were more active; they just ate less. I’d expect to find similar results here. Since we’ll be able to track diet and activity,” she adds, “the data is going to be interesting, no matter what.”

However forward-thinking the study may be, Harvey-Berino envisions it as just a beginning. For now, she’s constrained by budget to subjects in the Chittenden County area, but ultimately she’d like to broaden the test area. She’s also thinking about tracking adult use of DVD players, cellphones and other devices.

For now, the study certainly offers food for thought. Did you eat that whole bag of chips because you were hungry, or because you needed something to munch on during “Lost”?