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Dr. Kerry Stewart
Brain Health

Digital Disease
by Kerry Stewart

As a researcher, I regularly read scientific journals and attend professional meetings. And, as a typical American, I also read the newspaper. While medical advertisements are often criticized for improperly influencing doctors, many advertisements in the newspapers are targeting you with equal aggressiveness.

One ad that really caught my attention was from a cable company, which said, "Introducing the most exciting place in the world. Your couch." The announcer went on to say that, because this company can provide you with the latest in digital entertainment, "your couch will never be the same." The ad shows a young couple, sitting on their couch, having a wonderful time together.

My concern here is that, if most of us buy into this lifestyle, we would greatly increase our risk of what I call "digital disease." You see, this advertisement is completely at odds with the science of physical activity, which clearly shows that too much time on the couch is a major health hazard.

Being a "couch potato," puts you at risk for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Rather than thinking about the pleasures that this young couple are enjoying on the couch, I can't help imagining that at least one of them is going to be in an emergency room in 10 or 15 years.

One study showed that each 2 hours per day a person has spent over the years watching television (most likely on the couch) increased that person's risk of becoming obese by 23% and of developing diabetes by 14%. These are alarming statistics, given that obesity and diabetes are two major reasons why individuals have heart attacks and strokes. The same study also showed that, over the years, each hour per day spent walking reduced one's risk of becoming obese by 24%, and lowered the risk of developing diabetes by 34%. The study concluded that sedentary behaviors were associated with poor health, whereas even light-to-moderate activity was associated with better health.

Though there is no denying that digital entertainment brings great pleasure, it is also a health hazard if you don't use it wisely. Here are some ways you can still enjoy digital media while avoiding "digital disease."

  • If you are exercising indoors, watch movies, soap operas, news, and talk shows by putting your exercise machine in front of your big-screen TV.
  • Or, if you walk outdoors, download your favorite music or news on your iPod or smart phone. Just be sure to use headphones that do not completely cover your ears, so you can you still can hear and be aware of traffic and others around you.
  • The cell phone is a technological marvel that allows you to stay in touch with friends for long conversations or to do business, no matter where you are. It would be better for your health to talk while you walk rather than while sitting on the couch.

The key to a healthy and long life, along with enjoying digital media, is striking the right balance of activity, entertainment, and communication. The message of the couch being the "most exciting place in the world" is in misguided contrast with good health. Though I am a big fan of the digital lifestyle, the best way to avoid "digital disease" is to use this gadgetry to support an active lifestyle rather than to just plant yourself and grow into an unhealthy couch potato.

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