Bottom Line Up Front: There are a lot of things you can do to get fit while watching TV. It is easy to turn what sounds like a sedentary event into improvements in your health and physical fitness.
The television is arguably the greatest invention of the 20th century (telephone, internet are major competitors of course). It has been entertaining and informing people for more than 50 years in ways radio never could. Even with the internet, most Westernized homes have a family room with the TV as its centerpiece.
With all the good comes some bad though. Instead of talking to each other, reading, or being physically active, people started watching TV. They almost always do this while sitting on a soft, comfy couch that is terrible for your body. What we will try to do here is take the good aspects of television (entertainment, community, information) and merge them with some healthy activity. I am not trying to multitask, which I find counter-productive. These are things you can do that are not complicated and don’t require changes in mental focus. You should be able to do all of these things and easily follow a documentary, a sporting event, or Goodfellas.
1. Stand: Sitting is the new smoking. You should have heard this before. I believe it. A very easy activity to do that requires no training or special equipment is simply to stand while watching TV. You can do it the whole time or some of the time. Alternate standing with some of the other ideas below or even with just sitting on the couch if you must. A lot of the articles talking about the negative effects of sitting say many of them can be undone with periodic breaks from sitting and/or from changing positions regularly.
Instead of sitting or laying on the couch for the whole movie, stand for 10 minutes then hit the couch for 20 (or 30 or 40). Work to your own personal tolerance and level of commitment. If you will stand for only 5 minutes at a time, that is perfectly fine. Use it as a starting point and see where it takes you.
2. Sit on the Floor: Sitting isn’t so bad itself; it is sitting in bad positions that is the problem. This is the hunched over, shoulders rounded forward, neck hanging position. Turns out this position has a whole host of negative side effects from musculoskeletal damage to changes in blood chemistry. Sitting on a hard floor with proper posture (spine in line with the tail behind us as per the TEDx talk below) and without the rounded back is far better than the soft, comfy, overstuffed couch.
3. Body Position Holds: Hold yourself in a specific position for periods of time. Plank, superman, wall squat, hollow body rock, front leaning rest (push-up position) are all easy examples. You can work to ability/desire on these with more complicated movements and longer lengths of time.
4. Hold Something: Related to body position holds, this is simply holding heavy things in various positions. I do barbell holds overhead (light 45-lb barbell all the way to around 200 lbs based on how I feel) or hanging from a pull-up bar (or rings to mix it up). A good simple rotation is something like 60 seconds overhead holding something, then transition to 60 seconds hanging from a pull-up bar. Obviously adjust to your level of fitness. You can make this fun by doing one arm at a time (one kettlebell overhead or waiter’s walk with a bumper plate). Holding things in your hand in the suitcase position is also very simple and very effective. Just pick up a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or odd object, hold it with your arms extended to your sides for some period of time. Consider something like a hold in the bottom position of a squat with added resistance. Put a loaded barbell on your back, squat down, and hold it there. You can also work the torso/core/back/abs with just holding something heavy on your back in the standing position. Barbell works, but think of something like a dumbbell on one shoulder or a sandbag across your upper back. Great for postural stability. This is all very easy to do when you have a home gym with a Chromecast and PS3 hooked up to a monitor. Maybe more challenging to get a barbell in your living room admittedly.
5. Range of Motion Drills: While standing or sitting, you can manipulate your joints through their full range of motion. This will help with activating these joints that maybe don’t get enough attention. Simple neck rolls, shoulder rotations, hip rotations, bringing the knees up to the chest, rolling the wrists and ankles are all examples. There isn’t much of a set or rep prescription for this. I would say deliberately going through each joint through its full range of pain-free motion multiple times is pretty good.
6. Stretch: Some people will tell you stretching is dead, that it’s old school. I would say it depends on your way of looking at it. Are we using it to improve flexibility? Not really. We are using it in this case to move your joints through a healthy range of motion and hold it in place for a short time. The goal is mobility. This is not hard, gritting-your-teeth stretching. This is a short hold in a very comfortable position. As you are sitting or standing, working through all the major areas of the body in order, top to bottom is pretty simple to remember. Maybe neck, arms, chest, upper back, lower back, thigh, calf, feet. Tons of options for stretches. Pick one for each area, hold it a 3 times for 10 seconds or less.
7. Self-Myofascial Release (SMR): If you haven’t heard of this, it is basically using various tools to give yourself a deep tissue massage. It improves recovery, mobility, positioning, and blood flow to the muscles to name a few. This is what all those people who are rolling around on cylinders are doing, whether they know it or not. You can do it with a foam roller, soft object like a tennis ball, hard object like a lacrosse ball, as well as various implements that are invented specifically for this. You can proactively hit certain areas or focus on specific areas of pain/decreased mobility. Refer to the further reading below for some guides and videos.
If you are looking for some specific gear recommendations, try this roller, this ball, or any very specific piece of gear here. A good roller and lacrosse ball are enough for a beginner. As you get more advanced, you can look into more complicated pieces of equipment.
8. Practice a Physical Skill: While you have the TV on, you can do what I do on Sundays during the Fall/Winter which is to watch football while messing around with handstands. I can walk on my hands very easily but I want to be able to hold myself for longer than 30 seconds in a static handstand position. So as I am watching the games (NFL Sunday Ticket!) in the garage gym, I get into a handstand and hold it or work on supplementary drills for handstands to get better at them. For you, based on your fitness, this skill may be a basic body weight squat past parallel or it may be something more complicated like a pistol (one-legged squat). You could get a jump rope out and practice stringing together double unders (two jump rope revolutions in one jump). You could get a piece of PVC pipe and practice the dip-drive in the Jerk. The point is it should be something that requires neuromuscular coordination and that isn’t physically fatiguing. If you are getting tired, your skill will diminish and you will have turned this into a bad workout vs a skill session.
Some people will act like not having a TV is a badge of honor, like they are more evolved and more healthy. If they are out and about enjoying nature or going for walks, that’s great. However, I suspect all they usually do it sit watching a computer screen more, in as bad or worse a position than on the couch. Sometimes they take the laptop to the couch or play on their tablet or phone. This isn’t any better than having a television for your health. Hopefully the eight ideas above sparked some creativity in your head and will let you feel good again about simply watching plain old television. Now your mission is to pick the right shows (Sons of Anarchy, Walking Dead, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad are a few to consider on the pure entertainment front).
QUESTION: What are some things you do when watching TV to keep you fit? Post thoughts to comments.
- Why Sitting All Day is Killing You: Video from CBS News
- Katy Bowman’s mostly furniture-free home
- Find your primal posture and sit without back pain: Esther Gokhale at TEDxStanford
- Range of Motion Rotations
- Stretching Exercises
- Beginner’s Guide to SMR by The Art of Manliness: Very details background, explanation, and examples of ways to do SMR.
- SMR Video with Kelly Starrett 1: He gets into some stretching, foam rolling, and myofascial release using a few other tools.
- SMR Video with Kelly Starrett 2: He uses a lacrosse ball to open up the shoulders for increased flexibility.
- Foam Rolling Video: Runner-focused but a good, basic demo of using a foam roller.
- SMR at T Nation: The author digs a little at foam rolling and tennis balls, but he shows some really good videos at the end with ways to use your own fingers to get deep into various tissues.