Curl Up with a Good Book: The Health Benefits of Reading
For some of us, there’s nothing better than curling up with a good book on a rainy day and reading for hours on end. And for others, there’s nothing worse. No matter which side you fall on, one fact remains the same: reading is good for both your physical and mental health.
This news likely comes as no surprise to most bookworms. After all, their love of reading is tied to how it makes them feel—that is, the way a good novel brings a welcome break from reality. But for both the avid and less-than-eager readers, let’s explore the health benefits of reading.
Less Stress: The Scientific Benefits of Reading
Stress is a sensation we are all too familiar with. We’ve all experienced it and have our own ways of coping—some better than others. What many people aren’t aware of, however, is that stress can adversely affect your health.
Day-to-day stress may simply make you uncomfortable—think headaches, stomach pains, fatigue, or restless sleep. Over time, stress can increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and heart attacks. And it’s not just your body that feels the stress effects—it can also take a toll on your mental health. Stress has been tied to increased levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
All that to say, stress is something you should try to minimize and manage to bolster your well-being. This is where reading comes in.
One study suggests reading for as little as six minutes each day is as effective at reducing stress in the body as many other popular stress-management techniques, such as going for a walk. And there’s tangible proof: reading can lower your resting heart rate and relieve muscle tension.
Although there’s still much to unpack regarding the neurological intricacies of reading, scientists theorize some of this stress relief is due to the focus it requires. Like meditation, reading directs an individual’s attention to a single task. Paired with how reading uniquely triggers imagination, people may transport to an altered state of consciousness—one free from many day-to-day stressors. If you’ve ever “escaped” into a book, you may have experienced this phenomena.
Some studies even tie regular reading to increased longevity. One study conducted by Yale suggests individuals over the age of 50 who regularly read books—not articles—had a decreased risk of dying in the next decade. The reason needs to be explored further, but one possible explanation goes back to stress relief. As mentioned, stress takes a toll on your body. If you reduce stress, you lessen the wear and tear your body experiences, which in turn, may boost longevity.
Food for Thought: What Reading Does for the Brain
People love to talk about reading being good for the brain, but often don’t get into specifics. So, what exactly does this mean? The short answer is reading can alter your brain on a neurological level. But let’s get to the long answer.
Reading engages several regions of the brain, including the temporal lobe and Broca’s area (in the frontal lobe). White-matter pathways—collections of nerve fibers in the brain—also play a crucial role in reading by connecting various brain regions. To best transmit information, these nerve pathways must be wide and smooth. As children learn to read, it’s crucial for these white-matter pathways to develop and grow properly. Bumpy or narrow pathways are tied to lower reading fluency. But here’s the amazing thing: with practice and remediation these neural pathways can change and develop, increasing a child’s ability to read fluently.
At this point you may be thinking it’s too late—you’re probably not a child learning to read. But reading’s impact on the brain isn’t limited to early childhood, as observed in one 2013 study.
Researchers monitored the resting-state networks (RSNs) of participants aged 19–27. RSNs are basically different regions or functional communities in the brain that play a role in several neural processes, including memory, attention, and sensory systems. As you age, the connectivity between these networks declines, which has been tied to various drops in cognitive function. This captivating study identified increased RSN connectivity among participants who were assigned a section of a novel to read each evening.
One study observation was not surprising—the language-processing regions of the participants’ brains were strengthened. But the positive effects didn’t stop there. The sensorimotor regions of their brains were also strengthened, suggesting that reading may have a broader impact on the brain than expected.
The main takeaway here is that reading is exercise for your brain. And just like any other workout, it helps build strength. The stronger your brain is as you age, the better it will function. This is backed up by numerous studies that found reading regularly may help delay Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurological declines associated with aging.
Mind, Body, and Soul: More Reasons Why Reading is Good for You
So far, we’ve focused on the scientific benefits of reading—those that can be observed and measured through studies and experiments. While these benefits are significant, it would be a shame to end the discussion here. After all, reading has many other upsides—they are just a little more difficult to measure. Let’s break down a few:
- Increased empathy: It’s no surprise that reading literary fiction—novels and stories about made-up characters—can increase your ability to understand and connect with others. Novels put you inside the mind of the characters, giving you direct access to their thoughts, feelings, and desires. This experience translates directly to the real world, where you may find you’re better equipped to understand and form relationships with those around you.
- Decreased loneliness: Both writers and readers often liken a good book to a good friend. And, as it turns out, this comparison is fairly apt. Just like a bestie, a good book can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. Whether it’s the company of a novel’s characters or your newfound friends in book clubs or other similar forums, connections are created a variety of ways.
- Greater social awareness: Middle school to high school can be difficult years to say the least. It’s a period of transition—physically, emotionally, and socially. While reading can’t help much with the first, it can ease emotional and social transitions in adolescence. By reading about characters in situations like their own, teens may find their lives a little less awkward. And by reading about characters from different cultures, situations, economic status, etc. they gain insight into the world around them as they increase their social awareness and emotional maturity.
Making Time to Read: Books Are More Than a Guilty Pleasure
People often say they read less than they would like to. And the reason is simple: there just isn’t enough time. Reading is seen as a leisure activity, something enjoyed when you have down time—a rare commodity these days.
If you’ve ever found yourself falling into this line of thinking, just remember, getting lost in the pages of a good book is more than a guilty pleasure. Making time to read means taking time for your mental, physical, and emotional well-being. It’s an act of self-care. And the best part…all you need is a good book.