MONDAY, Dec. 14, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- James Crouse was watching 25 or 26 hours of television a week until he enrolled in a study that required him to cut his tube time in half.
During his enforced period of deprivation, Crouse burned considerably more calories each day, and not necessarily through strenuous exercise, although he did find his running increased.
Much of his newly freed time was spent reading and working on the computer, said Crouse, 52, a semi-retired math teacher living in Essex Junction, Vt.
Crouse was one of 36 participants taking part in a study to see what turning off the TV did to lifestyle habits.
On average, participants burned 120 more calories a day and spent about 50 percent less time plunked in front of the TV than they had before starting the study.
"That's the equivalent of more than a mile of walking a day," said study author Jennifer Otten. The research, which appears in the Dec. 14/28 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, was conducted while Otten was working at the University of Vermont.
Most reported filling the extra time not with grueling periods on the treadmill, but with "light" activities such as housework, gardening, yoga or organizing photos.
The finding -- that less time watching TV means more calories burned -- is hardly surprising but may provide clinicians with a new tool to stem the tide of overweight and obesity.
There was no reduction in calorie intake in those watching less TV.
This three-week study wasn't long enough to see major changes in body mass index or weight although, Otten said, "they appeared to be going in the right direction."
Of course, the perennial challenge is how to motivate people to actually make these changes.
"It's always good to have information like this but unless people actually change their lifestyle then all the information and all the research in the world is not going to help," pointed out Eugenio Lopez, a diabetes educator with the Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Education Center.
But experts are hoping that the micro-magnitude of this change -- simply cutting TV time -- may be manageable for some people.
"It's easier to think about turning off the TV and seeing what happened than enrolling in a weight-loss class and attending," Otten said.
"It was a small change, and I think a small change is how we start to make a bigger change," added Dr. Marina Kurian, medical director of the program for surgical weight loss at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
As for Crouse, he didn't lose any weight in the study but has shed 15 pounds since it ended.
But he attributes it not to less TV watching, which he has resumed, but to the fact that the study tuned him into the number of calories he was consuming.
"I learned how much I ate. I was burning up almost 4,000 calories a day, but I was eating 4,000 calories a day," he said.
He cut back to 3,000 calories a day and lost weight.
Visit the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for more on the benefits of physical activity.