Abstract Background Television (TV) watching is the most common leisure activity in the United States. Few studies of adults have described the relationship between TV and health behaviors such as physical activity, diet, and body weight status. Methods Extant data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study were analyzed to assess the association of TV with physical activity, diet, and body mass index (BMI) among 15,574 adults at baseline (1986–89) and 12,678 adults six years later. Television, physical activity, and diet were collected with questionnaires and BMI was measured at both time points. Based on baseline TV exposure, adults were categorized into high, medium, and low TV exposure. Linear and logistic regression models were adjusted for gender, age, race-center, smoking, education, and general health. Results Relative to participants who had low TV exposure, those with high TV exposure were more likely to be less physically active and have a poorer dietary profile at baseline and six-years later. Participants with high TV exposure at baseline had a 40% and 31% greater odds of being considered insufficiently active at baseline (1.40, 95% CI 1.26, 1.55), and six years later (1.31, 95% CI 1.18, 1.46). At baseline, high TV exposure was also associated with a 20% to 30% greater odds of being above the median for servings of salty snacks (1.37, 95% CI 1.24, 1.51), sweets (1.26, 95% CI 1.15, 1.38), and sweetened drinks (1.29, 95% CI 1.17, 1.42), and below the median for fruit and vegetable servings (1.36, 95% CI 1.24, 1.50). Higher TV exposure was also cross-sectionally associated with a greater odds for being overweight or obese (1.43, 95% CI 1.29, 1.58). Similar associations were observed between baseline TV exposure and six-year physical activity and diet, but were not observed with BMI after six years follow-up. Conclusion These results support the hypothesis that time spent watching TV is associated with deleterious effects on physical activity, diet, and BMI.