This potential myth most likely comes from the mindless, zombie-like trance that we can experience when watching television. The issue has garnered specific attention in kids, since they watch a lot of TV, and as we see in these very candid photos taken while children watched television...can easily slip into their zombie-like trance.
Calorically speaking, sitting quietly is commonly considered to the minimal standard for energy expenditure, which is 1 Metabolic Equivalent or MET. We then compare other activities to see how much more energy is needed to do that particular activity.
For example, brushing your teeth is about 2 METs, meaning it requires 2 times the energy to brush your teeth than it does to sit quietly.
From a physical activity standpoint, we target those activities that are 3 METs or higher, such as a brisk walk.
So, while sitting quietly is 1 MET, the physical activity compendium tells us that watch TV quietly is 1.3 METs.
If a 150 lb person sat quietly for 1 hour, he would expend about 68 calories, but would expend about 88 calories watching TV – about 20 calories more than sitting quietly. This is assuming he is sitting quietly while he watched TV (and not acting like me during a college football game).
What Does the Research Say?
The research is actually mixed, with some studies support that we expend a hair more while watch television, with other studies showing we expend less. In either case, the estimation in calories ‘burned’ are not that different.
In support that we expend a few more calories watching TV, a study looked at energy expenditure in 9 to 11 year old children while they watched the exciting movie, Cars.2
In this case, they expended about the same amount of calories, maybe a little more than at rest – with a difference of about 13 calories per hour more in a 65 lb child. For comparison, playing the Nintendo Wii expended twice as much energy than rest, or 46 calories more.
In contrast, a study measured caloric expenditure of 31 children, ages 8 to 12, while they were sitting at rest versus watching an episode of the television classic, The Wonder Years.1 Yes, this was 1993.
Based on their data, the researchers found that if children were to sit all day, they would expend 1470 calories. However, if they watched The Wonder Years all day, they would expend 164 calories less, at 1306 calories.
So, does watching TV burn less calories than just sitting? I call this one plausible, especially if you are prone to watching TV like the undead. If not, then you are going to ‘burn’ the same amount of calories watching television than you do sitting quietly.
Either way, the goal is to sit less.
- Klesges, R. C., Shelton, M. L., & Klesges, L. M. (1993). Effects of television on metabolic rate: potential implications for childhood obesity. Pediatrics, 91(2), 281-286.
- Mitre, N., Foster, R. C., Lanningham-Foster, L., & Levine, J. A. (2011). The energy expenditure of an activity-promoting video game compared to sedentary video games and TV watching. Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism, 24(9-10), 689-695.