Updated: Nov 19, 2021
Do you like watching movies and/or television? And how often have you heard that spending too much time watching TV or movies is bad for your health? Most likely, a lot. What if I were to tell you that might not be the whole story.
I love going to the movies and I truly believe that television is one of the loves of my life. I get really into shows, and I am a chronic binger. For me, watching movies and TV is one of the best ways for me to rest and relax. Although I can see some ways in which it may lead to bad habits, I have never felt that enjoying this form of entertainment was in and of itself unhealthy.
Guess what? Some recent research just backed up my thoughts and have demonstrated a few potential health benefits of going to the movies.
Movies and TV’s Unhealthy Reputation
In the wellness world, sometimes I feel as though I will be kicked out as an expert for admitting my adoration for the cinematic arts. Although the people I interact with are lovely, there are times where I have felt shamed for my movie-loving, which may or may not be something stemming from my own insecurities.
This is because movies and TV watching is often associated with being too sedentary or opting for poor food choices. In a nutshell, it is often associated with overall "unhealthy" lifestyle behaviors and thereby a reputation for being unhealthy.
But I always felt that movies and television were wrongly maligned. While there are some behaviors associated with watching TV and movies that could negatively impact health, such as increased blue light exposure, lack of movement, and mindless snacking, association does not mean causation.
So, Are Movies Really Bad for Your Health?
I have long held a hypothesis that mindfully watching television or movies, and by that, I mean fully immersing oneself in the experience, can be health-promoting, not destructive. It can provide stress relief, escapism, a way to get out of a routine and relax. And it may have a benefit to heart health, emotional health, mental health, and more.
Additionally, movies and television offer social interactions and connections, a vital component of overall health and wellbeing. The social benefits occur whether you watch something together or just talk about it later. How many office water cooler conversations involve popular culture? It's a great way to fit into the company culture. I know I have many conversations with friends about our theories of what will happen next on our favorite TV show or debriefing after watching a movie, and I'm sure you do, too, if you count TV and movie watching as one of your hobbies.
Study on the Health Benefits of Going to the Movies
So, why am I bringing all of this up? Well, I feel vindicated by a recent study: researchers from the University College London found that going to a movie provides a heart rate increase similar to 40 minutes of low-impact cardio along with other health benefits.
In the study, the researchers found that detailed that going to the movie theater to see the film made a huge difference because there were no distractions, allowing the audience to be more immersed in the experience. The audience watched the live-action Aladdin, and those who were in the movie theater experienced a change in their heartbeats to a “healthy heart zone” or 40 to 80 percent of the maximum rate, which is similar to gardening or a brisk walk.
The researchers also postulated that paying attention to the plot without being distracted could provide cognitive benefits, such as helping strengthen problem-solving skills. This type of activity is especially beneficial in a world filled with distractions, multi-tasking, and multiple screens.
There was also synchronization of heartbeats of the audience, allowing for positive social connectedness and greater bonding, which could also help to reduce feelings of loneliness and depression.
Add onto that the opportunities for socializing before and after the movie, whether you go with a friend, partner, family member, or group. Or, if you go solo to the theater (which I often do), you also have the opportunity to socialize when talking about the movie at a later time.
Additional Research into Physical Reactions to Movies
This is not the only study to show that our bodies physically react to movies. Studies on horror movies have also found impacts on heart rate. One study found that observing a fictitious stressful event for the first time (the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre film) led to higher leukocyte numbers, an increase in heart rate, and an increase in blood pressure, similar to what would occur when experiencing a real-life stressful event.
Another study found heart rate changes linked to empathy and emotive states when watching The Impossible, which ultimately demonstrated a non-uniformity to complex social stimuli like movies. It also shows that movies can stimulate emotional and empathetic responses similarly to real-life situations. Another study found that watching a horror movie led to increased platelet reactivity which is associated with the risk of an acute stress cardiovascular event (basically an increased risk of a heart attack from the stress of a horror movie).
Benefits of Laughter
Laughter’s the best medicine, right? And there are many movies and TV shows out there that stimulate such a response. Laughter therapy and laughter yoga are becoming more common and have some scientific research validating their benefits. Laughter can decrease stress hormones and the overall effect of stress and positively impact neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin for mood benefits.
Although stimulated laughter (forced laughter) may have more benefits in terms of a therapy than natural laughter, the benefits of both have been found. In a study in patients awaiting an organ transplant, 20-minutes of stimulated laughter along with some breathing and stretching exercises and meditation led to improved mood and increased heart rate availability, which correlates to benefits to cardiovascular health.
Although I did not find a study showing the health benefits of laughter associated with watching a comedy, I do feel that the laughter stimulated from a funny movie or TV show would similarly promote health benefits. Just think how good it feels to watch your favorite comedy after you've had a bad day.
After the publication of this study, I heard some late-night hosts joking about now you can go to the movie and say you’ve exercised, which is a vast over-simplification of the findings. Of course, they are in it for the jokes, not scientific accuracy. However, this study does show that there can be health-promoting aspects of movies, and possibly TV as well.
I have highlighted here some health benefits of movie watching, but there are studies that have linked potential psychological and physiological problems to certain types of movies or certain behaviors associated with movie and TV watching that I have purposely left out of this discussion, as I'm focusing on the positive aspects that often get overlooked.
Most of the studies I’ve looked at here also look at movies rather than TV. And the study that inspired this blog emphasized that the benefits came from attending the movie in the theater. I hypothesize that watching a movie or TV show without distractions in your home could stimulate similar responses, but I do not have a study to back it up.
I believe that whether or not movies and TV are healthy or unhealthy depends a lot on context and what you are trying to get out of it. Are you having something playing the background while you do work or multi-task, keeping your stress levels high? Are you mindlessly eating snacks, especially highly processed snacks with limited nutrition? These may lead to some of the more negative impacts more often associated with it. Or, are you putting your phone away and focusing solely on the movie or show, whether you are at home or in a theater? Like many things, movie and TV watching lives in the grey area of life.
I still believe that TV and movies can play a role in a mindful, healthy life, as can many different activities and behaviors. How do you do this?
The next time you watch your favorite show or movie, allow yourself to put away your distractions and be immersed in the film. Empathize with the characters. Socialize and connect with your friends, family members, or other audience members. And be mindful of what and how much you eat during the show, focusing on your hunger and satiety cues. If you find that hard, then save your snacking or eating for another time.
So, let's all go to the movies! What film will you see next?