Americans are reading less these days. It makes sense considering the competing entertainment outlets like television, Netflix, YouTube, and the internet. You can even go outside! With all those options to choose from, it can be tough to find time to read, especially if you’d rather “wait for the movie.”
If this sounds like you, consider dusting off a few of your favorite paperbacks for your health’s sake.
Escape Stress in a Book
In 2009, researchers discovered that reading is the “ultimate relaxation” tactic. The scientists monitored the physical signs of stress of volunteers as they underwent tests and exercises. The volunteers then tried several stress-relieving activities. Playing video games (21 percent) and taking a walk (42 percent) saw the smallest decreases in stress. Reading blew away the other options, lessening stress by 68 percent after only six minutes.
Dr. David Lewis, the cognitive neuropsychologist leading the study, said, “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.”
Activate and Improve Your Brain-Power
My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer and I have my mind…and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow. — Tyrion Lannister, A Game of Thrones
The perception of avid readers as being intelligent is prevalent for a reason. It’s partly because the more education you have, the more likely you are to read. And while there is no single measurement of intelligence, reading improves almost every factor used to determine how smart you are.
One of these is vocabulary. A famous study from 1985 found that we get five to 15 percent of the words we know from reading. That may seem small, but five to 15 percent is a massive amount of words when you consider how many words you know. Reading exposes children to 50 percent more words than watching primetime TV or engaging in conversation. A larger vocabulary is also linked to better test scores and a higher IQ later in life.
Reading can also help you flex your empathic muscle. That’s right, reading improves your emotional intelligence. When you read, it puts you in the shoes of the narrator and characters. This isn’t just in a narrative sense. Reading stimulates parts of your brain depending upon what you’re reading. The deeper you dive into the story, the greater effect reading has on your empathy. It even makes you better at reading the emotional cues of others!
Slow Brain Aging
Not only does reading improve aspects of your brain, it also protects what you already have! Reading has a well-documented relationship with memory and brain age. One study on reading and dementia found that avid readers’ brains aged 15 percent slower than volunteers’ who did not read.
With such a strong link to brain age and memory, it’s no shock that reading can lower your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. One landmark study found that mentally-active adults are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life.
This trend continues into old age, where “brain-teasing” activities are even more important. In fact, adults with creative hobbies (like reading) encounter mental decline at a 32 percent slower rate!
Get a Good Night’s Sleep with a Good Book
Reading before bed is a bedtime ritual for many people. If you enjoy a good night’s sleep (and its many health benefits!), reading is a great way to get there. Most sleep experts will advise you to set a schedule before going to bed. This signals to your body that it’s time to sleep.
If you’re planning on reading before bed, stick to physical books for maximum benefits. While backlit e-readers are great, they have the same pitfalls as your phone or TV. The bright light from the screen signals to your brain to wake up, leaving you feeling wide awake when you want to sleep most.
One study found that viewing a screen before bed made volunteers have a 50 percent decrease in melatonin and take 10 minutes longer to fall asleep. Books, on the other hand, allow you to unwind without the bright screen.
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Reading is a growing rarity, a hobby from a different time. In our ever-connected, ever-moving lives, unplugging for a few minutes each day with a good book can leave you happier, healthier, and smarter. It might be time for a trip to your local library!