There are many ways to spend your downtime nowadays, even compared to ten years ago. Some of the most popular, of course, are scrolling through your smartphone and watching TV. As a result, time-honored forms of leisure, such as reading a book from cover to cover, can seem pointless, even boring.
However, that mindset flies in the face of empirical evidence—science has shown again and again that reading books makes you healthier, a better thinker, and even a better person. So read on to discover how a page-turner can turn the page on the notion that there’s no good reason to read books.
Improves Your Mental Health
You’ve heard of muscle memory, so think of your brain as a muscle. Reading a book helps you work out your “muscle” and makes it stronger by forcing you to remember scores of characters, timelines, plots, and subplots.
This reading benefit is there for people of any age, but it can be especially beneficial for children and the elderly. For example, reading at a young age has been associated with increased intelligence both in adolescence and later in life—and the benefit may be even more pronounced if classic literature is the focus. And ample research has shown the positive correlation between mental stimulation and brain function for older people. One particular study, published in the journal Neurology, suggests that the longer you do mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, over the course of your life, the more you can stave off cognitive decline in your golden years. Other research has even linked reading with living longer.
Improves Your Physical Health
We all have our own ways of destressing, which is an important part of maintaining good health. For some, it’s active (getting in a good workout), while for others, it’s passive (playing video games, watching TV, and scrolling on phones).
But reading? It may be the best option of all. Curling up with a good book has been shown to decrease blood pressure and lower heart rate, among other stress-reduction benefits—with one study indicating that six minutes of reading is more calming than even listening to music or drinking tea or coffee.
Improves Other Abilities
From a very young age, kids are fascinated with books—the pages fill their imaginations and expand their worlds. But, as parents and educators alike will tell you, they are also key tools in expanding children’s vocabulary. And that can help later in life, since the earlier you start consistently reading and filling your head with new words, the more likely you’ll succeed in things like tests and interviews.
COMMITMENT AND CONCENTRATION
Contrary to most things in the twenty-first century, book-reading requires unhurried, deliberate processing and more reflecting. You must be all in to get through a substantial read, and that includes slowing down your thoughts and focusing—after all, it takes time and effort to read a novel from beginning to end. And that’s especially true for a book series like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter collection, since you need to remember everything not only within the covers but between books. But in this area, is there an advantage to a physical book versus an e-book? Surprisingly, people are still clamoring for paperbacks and hardbacks—in 2018 alone, readers spent over ten times as much on them than e-books.
Perhaps it’s the romance or stature of holding the book or the smell of the paper. But research also shows that opting for physical books makes better connections in your mind and helps you concentrate and remember the text more—so maybe there’s an underlying physiological reason as well.
Reading a book goes beyond entertainment, too. The activity often requires you to push past the superficial and dig for deeper meaning—allowing you to discover your own unique voice and help it stand out from the crowd, a beneficial skill for anything from careers to relationships to parenting.
Makes You a Better Person
Part of the enjoyment derived from reading books, especially fiction, stems from simple escapism: through the page, you’re transported to a different place (and perhaps to a different time) and putting yourself into someone else’s shoes. By willingly taking the ride, either through the protagonist’s eyes or the author’s eyes, you’re experiencing things through
his or her perspective and feeling his or her conflict (“Did George do right by Lennie?”), which can even lead to reconsidering the world or self-reflection (“Holden Caulfield reminds me too much of myself.”)—characteristics that are often sadly lacking in real life.
The bottom line: reading books can make you more empathetic and thus a better person. How many leisure activities can lay claim to do that?
How to Rediscover Reading
This may all be well and good, but how do you break through barriers—either your own or your family members’—and instill reading as a healthy habit? Here are some quick and easy tips to help bring the love of books back into your home.
• Make time for it. You most likely already have a daily calendar of to-dos, so prioritize your reading as well by adding it to your daily routine. Experts also say that morning is an ideal time to get some chapters in.
• Eliminate distractions. Let’s face it: unexpected moments tend to pop up over the course of a day. Accept that this can and probably will happen, and adjust accordingly. More problematic are the aforementioned screens that are always tempting us. Try setting aside screen-free time blocks each day, perhaps after dinner. And when you read, keep phones, remotes, and other gadgets far away.
• Take advantage of a book’s inherent flexibility. There’s almost no place where you can’t read a book. Taking public transportation? Let your book transport you to a different place during the ride. (Bonus benefit: It’s guaranteed to make the commute seem quicker.) Flying for business? An ideal time to crack open a book.
• Be honest with yourself. If you’ve read four or five chapters of a book and it seemed like a chore, don’t hesitate to move on to a different one.
• Challenge yourself … but don’t overdo it. If you’re super eager to get reading, you may try to do too much at once. Ease yourself in, as you would with exercise. Set a realistic goal for yourself to finish, perhaps a week or a month. Once you get into the swing of it, then set a goal for the number of books you’d like to read for the year. And, even though it’s often considered a solitary endeavor, reading can also be a fun social tool—reading challenges abound online, and book clubs allow you to discuss shared literary adventures.
Clearly, sitting down to a good read is a good-for-you activity—it’s good for your mind, your outlook, and your health. March is National Reading Month, and March 2 is the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day (and Dr. Seuss’s birthday), so there’s no better time to pick up a book and encourage others to do the same.
For more info, visit readacrossamerica.org or rif.org—or visit your local library!