When thinking about our well-being and taking care of ourselves, some things that we should do are harder than others. Reading is one of the easier ones. You can do it in your most comfortable clothes, in your most comfortable chair, or when the weather is terrible outside. You don’t need a membership or special equipment, and, well, you get the idea.
What follows are a number of ways in which reading can help maintain and improve health. For most of the items below, you can read anything you want for positive health effects. So, it doesn’t matter if you read a book about how to fish, a non-fiction account of a Civil War battle, a biography about a great coach, a classic work of fiction, or a who-done-it mystery. The more relevant, interesting, and enjoyable it is to you personally, the better.
Reading is a good stress management strategy.
Reading allows you to de-stress by unplugging and escaping. In one study, reading was found to be as effective as yoga and humor in reducing subjective feelings of stress over a 30-minute period, as well as objective measurements of systolic blood pressure (SBP), diastolic blood pressure (DSP), and heart rate (HR). This means that reading impacts your physical as well as your psychological health. Note that a good old-fashioned book or a dedicated eBook reader is the best way to do this, but if you are using a tablet, phone, or computer on which to read, shut down other programs and turn off notifications. Distractions and disruptions interfere with reading’s stress management properties.
Reading protects brain health.
In a longitudinal study of individuals aged 64 and over, those who read at least once a week were less likely to experience cognitive decline than those who did not. At the 14-year mark of the study, and regardless of educational level, those who read more enjoyed greater protection. This effect is maintained into readers' 80’s. Another study found that cognition in those over 80 was protected by activities such as reading.
Additionally, readers may live longer than non-readers. One study found that book readers lived longer than non-book readers and this was hypothesized to be due to the effect that reading has on maintaining cognitive abilities over time. Another study found men aged 70 and older who read daily had lower mortality rates over time than those who did not, when controlling for a number of potentially confounding variables.
Reading is an effective part of mental health treatment plans.
Bibliotherapy, or the use of various reading materials for the promotion of psychological health, is a well-known adjunct to mental health treatment. Bibliotherapy can consist of any type of literature and may include self-help books, focused readings, first-hand accounts of other’s experiences, and even relevant fiction. This can be a powerful strategy and has been used successfully to reduce depression, suicidal thinking, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, health anxiety symptoms, insomnia, and stress.
Reading a book before bed can help you get to sleep.
Reading can be an important bedtime ritual for anyone — not just kids. For adults, reading a book before bed can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and increase sleep duration. Note that the operative term here is book. Reading from a tablet or other blue enriched light source, including eBook readers, increases alertness and delays sleep onset, decreases melatonin secretion, disrupts sleep physiology and decreases morning alertness. Consequently, a good old-fashioned book is your best pre-bed reading option. In addition to reading a printed book before bed, it is also a good idea to be thoughtful about the content of the book you read prior to sleep. You may find that books with disturbing contents, for example, disrupt your sleep.
The benefits of reading are innumerable and reading is a low to no-cost activity. Cheap and no-cost books are everywhere. Public libraries continue to be one of the most amazing resources in America. Little free libraries are popping up in more places, and used bookstores carry tons of books for a fraction of full-priced new ones. If you aren’t a natural reader, you have nothing to lose by giving it a try.
Disclaimer: The information presented in this blog is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or mental health treatment. Seek the advice of your mental health provider or primary care provider for professional advice about your mental health.