Why Reading Is Beneficial To Your Health
You’ve probably seen that inspirational poster with the tagline “Minds are like parachutes; They work best when open.” It’s a clever quip, but it also begs the question: how exactly do you open your mind?
Well, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that reading (and fiction reading in particular) contributes to higher intelligence, more empathy, and slower cognitive decline as you age — not to mention stress reduction. Studies have also found that older people who read regularly are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. So if you want to keep your mind fit, diving into a novel is a great place to start. Read on for specific ways in which reading helps keep you in shape.
Reading builds verbal intelligence.
In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” According to research at the University of California – Berkeley, even children’s books expose their readers to 50 percent more words than primetime TV. So if you want to know more, read more. In particular, boosting one’s vocabulary early in life results in higher intelligence test scores down the road.
It eases stress.
Isn’t this enough by itself? We’re all so stressed out that a reliable “chill pill” — with no harmful side effects — would be flying off the shelves if it suddenly became available. But a 2009 University of Sussex study found that these miracle drugs already exist in bookstores and libraries across the world.
Participants in the study who read novels saw their heart rates and muscle tension decrease faster than those who listened to music, drank tea or coffee, or even exercised by walking. As the study’s director, Dr. David Lewis noted afterwards, “It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”
Reading can help you sleep better.
Shakespeare called sleep “the season of all natures”, meaning that we’re literally not ourselves when we’re tired. Since sleep is so crucial to our health, it makes sense to have a pre-bed routine to help yourself wind down and get ready to rest. Reading from a paper-and-ink book (as long as it doesn’t keep you awake) is actually a great way to let go of the day’s cares and prepare your body and brain for sleep.
Literature can also make you more empathetic.
Beyond strict knowledge accumulation, fiction-reading also helps us build emotional intelligence. The journal Science published findings in 2013 that reading literature enhanced “Theory of Mind” (ToM) in test subjects — defined as the ability to recognize and appreciate beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. When we put ourselves in a character’s shoes, we’re forced to consider their world as if it’s our own, and usually end up expanding our conception of what is “normal” or “relatable.”
Interestingly, the ToM boost has been found to be greatest with novels in which the characters have confusing or unexplained motivations (in contrast to a thrilling but predictable bestseller, for example). The responsibility to determine characters’ desires and intentions for oneself essentially forces the reader to flex those emotional muscles, and real-life empathy is a residual byproduct.
Reading helps keep you sharper, longer.
Our brains, like the rest of us, wear down as we age, but that doesn’t mean we can’t prolong our mental powers by taking better care of ourselves. From this perspective, reading is a great self-care practice that’s easy to keep up. A study published in the journal Neurology found that people who read and engaged in other mentally challenging activities across their lifetimes had less cognitive decline when they were elderly. They were also less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. While it’s important to note that this was merely an association (not cause-and-effect), cracking a novel today could be just what the (future) doctor ordered.
Thomas Whittington is an instructor with Iris Reading. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005 despite being a painfully slow reader. In 2008, he took an Iris course and, with practice, dramatically improved his reading speed. Hey, better late than never! Thomas' other interests include acting, comedy, and the Chicago Cubs.