Seeking Better Physical and Mental Health? Read a Book

Some might think that reading books, and longform content in general, has gone out of fashion with the rise of internet memes, sensationalized headlines, and global misinformation. However, there could well be a case for why it’s more important than ever for people to embrace the more traditional and timeless form of learning represented by the simple act of reading a book.

Due to the rise of the internet and other communications technologies that have drastically heightened the speed at which information flows through individuals in a society, many people’s attention span has been shortened. It can be hard to deeply engage with the nuances and substance of an issue without jumping to easy and convenient conclusions. This shift has some worrying consequences for our political, economic, and civil lives.

Fewer people being able to deeply contemplate important issues has meant that overly simplistic and emotional narratives have managed to take root in the minds of millions. The reality of this dysfunction creates ripple effects in nearly every aspect of our lives.

Moreover, the ability to think deeply and critically about complicated issues has important mental benefits. In fact, there is even evidence to suggest that reading books could be associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. Conversely, being overstimulated can certainly have detrimental effects on the mind.

Some of the many benefits of reading on the mind, besides playing a role in preventing cognitive decline, include strengthening the brain, increasing empathy, expanding vocabulary, increasing longevity, and reducing stress.

In fact, the National Institute on Aging recommends reading as a way to keep your mind sharp in older age. A 2009 study found that 30 minutes of reading a day had as powerful an effect in lowering blood pressure and heart rate as regular yoga practice. Readers looking for mind-expanding books should check out this Cool Things Chicago list of best sci-fi books of all time.

Some experts report that there could be reason to believe that daily reading could play a role in mitigating some of the effects of depression such as feelings of disconnection and alienation. This is because the act of reading subconsciously stimulates readers’ imaginations and temporarily removes them from daily problems and concerns. Reading nonfiction books can arm readers with practical strategies for managing their feelings, establishing a more balanced emotional world.

An extended health and retirement study that looked at 3,635 participants for 12 years found that those who read books lived for an average of two years longer than those that did not. This proves that there is some evidence to suggest reading’s positive impact on longevity. This piece by the New York Times gives more details regarding reading’s positive effects on longevity.

Many doctors suggest that reading could act as a sleep aid for some individuals. This is particularly the case for those reading from a traditional print book, since reading from a tablet or other screen could lessen or delay the production of Melatonin. Melatonin is a compound naturally produced by the brain that signals to the body that it’s time to go to sleep, and is normally triggered by a dark environment.

The body’s natural circadian rhythms are also related to Melatonin production, so for those reading in an effort to get to sleep, print books might be the better option. This piece by the Washington Post explains why screen time before bed can often inhibit sleep due to screens’ production of blue light.

Different kinds of reading can have various but complementary positive effects on the brain. For example, some experts believe that reading complex poetry can help the brain to remain elastic and active. In general, reading can also help to strengthen different neural pathways of the brain. 

Since each new bit of reading is stored as a memory in the brain, new synapses are also being created through reading, which can have powerful effects on mental wellbeing. 

One MRI study looked at how reading impacted the brains of 30 research participants. The results showed a heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex. That’s a part of the brain associated with language and intelligence. This result was evident despite the fact that participants weren’t reading during the MRI, which meant that the act of reading produced a sustained effect on the brain that continued after participants finished reading.

Frequent book reading has particularly significant effects for children since their brains are still developing. In fact, evidence suggests that children who read are better able to grasp abstract concepts, apply logic in complex situations, and notice cause and effect relationships. Many studies also show that children who are exposed to reading early, such as in preschool, are more likely to do better in all forms of formal education.

This piece by the BBC provides more information on reading’s effect on the brain and why there could even be reason to believe that it makes us better people.

The benefits of reading can even extend into individuals’ decision making. For example, research shows that individuals who have read books featuring characters that perform a certain normative activity are more likely to engage in that activity themselves in real life. As a result, reading regularly can help inform important life decisions and could even theoretically lead to an enhanced lifestyle for readers.

These many positive effects are really just the tip of the iceberg when considering that readers can gain important knowledge and insights through the books they read. Reading books about anatomy and physiology, for example, could give readers an edge at the gym by educating them on how they can push their bodies toward optimal performance.

Many books also provide valuable insights on the effectiveness and importance of different lifestyle and dietary choices that can have a powerful impact on readers’ day-to-day habits. Books can have a powerful impact on readers’ worldview by allowing them to digest complex arguments without triggering emotional defense mechanisms, as social media so often does.

In many ways, reading books represents a countermeasure to extended social media use which can segregate individuals into tribalistic echo chambers and prevent them from seeing opposing points of view. The importance of this for expanding readers’ minds cannot be overstated.

Books also offer a window into different sports and athletic pursuits, which can inspire some readers to adopt a more active lifestyle. That means that by expanding people’s minds, reading could well have a positive impact on their bodies as well.

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