Before there were books there were stories. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. Stories were, and still to this day are used to teach lessons and to entertain. Stories were passed down through generations, and different cultures all have their own stories. There’s the Celtic myths and legends with Cú Chulainn, The Fianna, Oisin and Tir na n’Óg and more. There are the Greek myths of Hercules, Zeus and all the Gods. For Catholics Jesus would tell parables to the crowds to teach them and make difficult concepts easier to understand by making them more relatable. Ancient carvings and paintings in caves from thousands of years ago show storytelling being recording through pictures. The ancient Egyptians were the first to use scrolls which were made from the papyrus plant. Then here we are today were you can read from books, magazines, e-readers, computer/tablet or phone screens. As an avid reader myself I constantly have a book on the go. I jump between my e-reader and good old-fashioned paper book. Whatever you read; the health benefits are similar. So if you don’t consider yourself a ‘reader’, and you find yourself straining to remember the last time you actually sat down and read a book for yourself (textbooks don’t count!), maybe now would be a good time to give it a go and reap the many mental and physical health benefits reading has to offer.
- A great brain workout! Same as how you need to exercise your muscles to keep your body strong, you need to exercise your brain. MRI scans have shown that reading strengthens your brain (Joy Stanborough, 2019). A study carried out in 2013 which got participants to read the novel ‘Pompeii’ over a period of nine days, showed that when tension rose in the story more and more areas of the brain lit up with activity (Berns et al., 2013). These effects lasted throughout the nine days and for several days after.
- Reading increases a person’s ability to empathize with others (Joy Stanborough, 2019). Studies have shown that people who read literary fiction are more capable of understanding the beliefs and feelings of others, despite not having the same life experiences, life circumstances or beliefs themselves (Kidd and Castano, 2013). Being empathetic towards others is a great skill to have today where there are so many different cultures, religions and beliefs. It helps you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes so to speak. This is also a great skill for someone who wants to go into acting as it will help you understand and relate to the role you are playing.
- An obvious developmental benefit of reading is that it broadens your vocabulary. The Mathew effect refers to a verse from the Bible, “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them” – Mathew 13:12. If you look at this verse with regards to vocabulary then it means the more words you have in your arsenal the further you’ll get in life. Research has shown that children who are exposed to reading from a young age have a broader vocabulary than those who aren’t, and they tend to be more successful at school, college/University and with job opportunities (Joy Stanborough, 2019). A quote from Dr Seuss that sums this up is “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you go!”
- Like I mentioned above, reading helps strengthen the brain, and in doing that it also helps with memory. As we get older our cognitive abilities tend to decline. Research shows that elderly people who read, do puzzles such as crosswords or sudoku, or do maths problems on a daily basis maintain, or in some cases improve, their cognitive function (Uchida and Kawashima, 2008). Just to make it clear, as of now there is no definite scientific evidence that proves reading prevents Alzheimer’s or Dementia indefinitely, but studies have shown that it reduces the risk of developing them (Lee et al., 2018).
- Reading reduces stress. For me reading a good book is my favourite way to ‘chill out’. Whether it’s summertime and I’m laying outside in my garden or on the beach, or if it’s wintertime and I’m cuddled up nice and cozy beside a blazing fire. A study was carried out on university students who were doing a very demanding Science course (been there, done that!). The study looked at the effects of yoga, reading and humour on the students’ stress levels. Results showed that thirty minutes of reading (not studying) lowered blood pressure and lessened feelings of psychological distress the same as yoga or a good old laugh (Joy Stanborough, 2019).
- Reading helps you get a good night’s sleep. Doctors at the Mayo clinic actually recommend incorporating reading into your bedtime routine. Swapping your screen for a good book will tell your brain it’s time to wind down for the night. Like mentioned above, reading helps you relax (Wise, 2019).
- A systematic review carried out in 2018 showed that over 264 million people, of all ages, suffer from some sort of depression worldwide (Global Health Metrics, 2018), those numbers are probably much higher at present. Depression is not just ‘mood swings’, it’s a serious mental health condition. I’m a big Harry Potter fan, and if you have read the books or even just seen the films, you’ll know what Dementors are. JK. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, created the Dementors of Askaban to represent her own battles with Depression – “They glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them” – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban. In the books you get rid of Dementors by using a patronus charm, you think of a happy memory. Sometimes that can be easier said than done, but books can help transport you to a happier place. Research has shown that reading can give a temporary reprieve from feelings of sadness, isolation and hopelessness (Joy Stanborough, 2019). Another quote from JK. Rowling is that “there’s always room for a story that can transport people to a different place”. The National Health Service (NHS) actually has a programme called ‘Reading well’ which allows doctors to prescribe self-help book to their patients suffering from feelings of depression (Joy Stanborough, 2019). Another quotefrom Harry Potter (told you I was a fan!) – “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light” – Albus Dumbledore.
So now you know all the health benefits of reading, why not use give it a go? There are so many different genres to choose from, you just need to explore. And if anyone ever says you’re being ‘lazy’ sitting around reading just tell them you’re looking after your health and send them to this blog!
Berns, G.S., Blaine, K., Prietula, M.J. and Pye, B.E. (2013) Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity, 3(6) 590–600. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868356/ [accessed 8 December 2020].
Global Health Metrics (2018) Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 354 diseases and injuries for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 – The Lancet Available from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)32279-7/fulltext [accessed 9 December 2020].
Joy Stanborough, R. (2019) Benefits of Reading Books: For Your Physical and Mental Health Available from https://www.healthline.com/health/benefits-of-reading-books [accessed 8 December 2020].
Kidd, D.C. and Castano, E. (2013) Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science (New York, N.Y.), 342(6156) 377–380.
Lee, A.T.C., Richards, M., Chan, W.C., Chiu, H.F.K., Lee, R.S.Y. and Lam, L.C.W. (2018) Association of Daily Intellectual Activities With Lower Risk of Incident Dementia Among Older Chinese Adults. JAMA Psychiatry, 75(7) 697–703. Available from https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.0657 [accessed 8 December 2020].
Uchida, S. and Kawashima, R. (2008) Reading and solving arithmetic problems improves cognitive functions of normal aged people: a randomized controlled study. Age, 30(1) 21–29. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2276592/ [accessed 8 December 2020].
Wise, A. (2019) 8 Science-Backed Benefits of Reading a (Real) Book Available from https://www.realsimple.com/health/preventative-health/benefits-of-reading-real-books [accessed 8 December 2020].