5 Health Benefits of Reading
Finding some quiet time to unwind and decompress during the holidays can be a real challenge, but there are plenty of reasons why finding some actual downtime—preferably without screens—should be a priority. So, why not curl up with a good read? Reading doesn’t just sharpen your mind. Research has found that it’s a great stress reliever. Plus, it delivers some surprising health perks.
Here are 5 ways reading can benefit both body and mind.
If you’re one of the 61 percent of people who feel frazzled during the holidays, carving out some quiet reading time might provide the escape you need. “When we read, we have this remarkable mental capacity to create another world in our head,” says Richard Gerrig, PhD, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University. “When you’ve had a terrible day and you sit on the couch and pick up a book, that book can absolutely take you away.”
It’s so powerful that one recent study on the toll of pandemic-related stress found that the more time people spent reading, the less tense they felt. (Exercising and cooking were great stress busters too).
A healthier heart
Whether it’s heated family dynamics, dessert overload, or too many champagne cocktails, the holidays aren’t exactly ideal for heart health. Setting aside some time to read can protect your ticker, even if you only do it occasionally. In one study, researchers found that one weekly 30-minute reading session was as effective as yoga for reducing blood pressure and heart rate, no mat or special gear required.
Burying yourself in a book, magazine, or newspaper might improve the way you relate to others. “People who read more show more empathy,” says Gerrig. While the exact mechanism hasn’t been nailed down, Gerrig suspects that readers are like silent onlookers who learn by observing the actions of the characters they read about—and the consequences of those behaviors. “When we see that the good guys are usually rewarded and that the bad guys are more likely to get punished, we want to behave like the good guys,” he explains.
Protection from cognitive decline
The older we get, the easier it is to forget little (and sometimes bigger) things. Experts have long known that healthy habits like exercise, a balanced diet, managing stress, spending time with friends and family, and staying mentally active can help you stay spry.
Now, a new study adds reading to that list. And you don’t have to spend hours in the library to see results. When scientists asked older folks how much time they spent reading, they found that people who reported reading once a week (or more) were 46 percent less likely to experience age-related declines in learning and memory than non-readers.
A longer life
There are lots of good reasons to flip through the paper or relax with your favorite magazine. But if you’d like to live longer, pick up a book. One study found that bookworms, who read for about a half-hour a day, outlived people who didn’t read books by nearly 2 years. How can that be? “Reading books encourages deeper reading than magazines [or newspapers], and it helps readers draw more connections to the outside world,” says Avni Bavishi, MD, a resident physician at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and co-author of the study. Over time, this mental workout strengthens the brain, helping it develop survival skills linked to longevity.
As beneficial as reading may be, finding the time to actually do it is another story, especially if you’re not in the habit to begin with. If you’re a morning person, consider setting aside some quiet reading time first thing so you can start your day with a few minutes of calm. Or stash some reading material in your bag to dive into later in the day when you could use a mental break. But if your day is too busy to even think about reading, digging into a book before bed can be an easy way to wind down. Just be sure to stick with a hardcover or a paperback instead of electronics, which can emit blue light that can mess with your sleep.