Reading Reaps Rewards
My reading habits come and go, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who reads more in the summer, given how nicely it complements my rear end being on a beach chair and my toes in the sand.
Realizing how relaxing I find reading, I went on a little research mission and asked a few of my well-read friends what health benefits they derive from reading.
In a 2009 study of a variety of traditional methods of relaxation, reading was found to be the most effective at reducing stress. Reading for just six minutes slowed down the heart rate and eased tension in the muscles, resulting in a reduced stress score of 68 percent, compared to having a cup of tea (54 percent) or taking a walk (42 percent).
“Reading has always brought me so much joy, which leads to overall greater health and well-being,” offered my friend and colleague Lisa Weinman. “And when I’m stressed or overwhelmed, it relaxes me.” My friend Jen Morris finds reading “empowering… knowledge reduces stress. When I’m reading a good book, I concentrate and am less distracted by cell phone calls and anything else.”
I was fascinated to learn about bibliotherapy, which uses an individual’s relationship to the content of books, poems, and other written words as therapy. It dates back to Ancient Greece, where above the entrance to the royal library were the words, “The house of healing for the soul.”
Bibliotherapy was practiced during and after the First World War, when hospitals had specialist in-house librarians. A paper on the subjects quotes two of those librarians: “Stories are sometimes better than doctors,” and, “Men were brought in from the front, self-control gone, nerves shattered, sleep impossible. A compelling story would often calm them and start them on the road to recovery.”
New Neural Pathways
Reading increases your vocabulary and challenges and keeps cognitive skills firing as you follow plot lines. This slows memory loss and helps maintain thinking ability as we age. A 2013 study by the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that when people in their 70s and 80s took part in activities such as reading or puzzling, cognitive decline was reduced by 32 percent. From the well-known and ongoing “Nun Study of Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease”, which began in 1986, we have learned a lot about the brain. Six hundred and seventy-eight nuns were studied during their lifetimes and agreed to donate their brains to science when they died. One of the many facets of the study compared the brains of prolific readers with other nuns who did not enjoy reading as much. The well-read group lived longer, and post-mortem examination showed they had more nerve fibers and points of contact in their brains, which may protect against feared brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, than non-reading nuns.
Since we know reading improves stress levels and well-being, it will come as no surprise that reading a book before bed helps you fall asleep faster and improves the quality of your sleep as well. The study I found only compared reading with not reading, but I wonder if the results would have been even more positive for reading if you compared reading a book to scrolling your phone.
Another well-read friend of mine, Aileen Lynch, told me, “Reading helps me escape a little when there is too much on my mind. I always read a few pages before bed, which definitely helps wind me down.”
Following fictional characters through the twists and turns of their lives, makes people empathetic. In a novel, you can view the world through the eyes of people who are of different gender, race, religion, age, or sexuality from yourself.
In a 2006 study, participants took the “Mind of the Eyes” assessment, which tested their ability to detect and understand visual cues of other people’s thoughts and emotions. In this test, participants matched words of emotions to photos of people’s eyes. The more a participant had read, the higher they scored.
I hadn’t shared any of these findings with my friend Lisa, yet she unknowingly concurred with them when we chatted, “I feel connected to others when I’m learning about their stories or experiences. I am challenged by new perspectives, which enables me to grow.”
Another important connection, a noticeable feeling of joy and bonhomie, occurs when you find out you enjoyed the same book as someone else. Even a quick chat about your favorite parts or characters is bonding and acknowledges you both recently wandered through the same otherworld for several hours.
Reading increases your knowledge, something known intuitively to all of us, but often pointed out by voracious reader Warren Buffett. In response to a question about how to prepare for an investment career, he told students, “Read 500 pages like this every day,” while reaching for a stack of manuals and papers. “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”
So, take Buffett’s advice and grab a book and a beach chair and feel pious about it!