Benefits of Reading: Getting Smart, Thin, Healthy, Happy

A love of reading can protect your brain from Alzheimer’s disease, slash stress levels, encourage positive thinking, and fortify friendships. Here's how your brain and body benefit when you crack open a book.

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Reading gives muscle to your memory.

Reading gives muscle to your memory.Design Pics/Thinkstock
Reading gives your brain a different kind of workout than watching TV or listening to the radio. Whether you’re absorbed in a page-turner or simply scanning an instruction manual for your coffee maker, “parts of the brain that have evolved for other functions—such as vision, language, and associative learning—connect in a specific neural circuit for reading, which is very challenging," Ken Pugh, PhD, president and director of research of Haskins Laboratories, told Oprah magazine. The habit spurs your brain to think and concentrate.

Reading gives your workout more staying power.

Reading gives your workout more staying power.Comstock/Thinkstock
Like the latest single from Lady Gaga or Real Housewives episode, books are also good company during a workout. A suck-you-in plot may keep you on an exercise machine longer to finish a captivating chapter, according to Weight Watchers magazine. Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University, told the magazine that in order to avoid neck or shoulder pain, readers should use the machine’s book ledge and try not to round their shoulders while working out.

Reading keeps your brain young.

Reading keeps your brain young.John Howard/Digital Vision/Thinkstock
Digging into a good book can literally take years off your mind, according to a recent study from Rush University Medical Center as reported by Prevention. Adults who spent their downtime doing creative or intellectual activities (like reading) had a 32 percent slower rate of cognitive decline later in life than those who did not. “Brainy pursuits make the brain more efficient by changing its structure to continue functioning properly in spite of age-related neuropathologies,” Robert S. Wilson, PhD, professor of neuropsychology at Rush University Medical Center, told the magazine. Another recent study found that older adults who regularly read or play mentally challenging games like chess or puzzles are two and a half times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, reported ABC News.

Reading can melt away stress.

Reading can melt away stress.iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Snuggling up with a good read tamps down levels of unhealthy stress hormones such as cortisol, Weight Watchers recently reported. In a British study, participants engaged in an anxiety-provoking activity and then either read for a few minutes, listened to music, or played video games. The stress levels of those who read dropped 67 percent, which was a more significant dip than that of the other groups.

Reading boosts your vocabulary.

Reading boosts your vocabulary.iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Even if it’s been decades since you had to worry about the SATs, you can still use books to expand your mental dictionary. In fact, researchers estimate that we learn five to 15 percent of all the words we know through reading, according to a Scholastic report. This is particularly important for children, whose vocabulary size is directly and dramatically related to the books they read.

Reading improves empathy.

Reading improves empathy.iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Stories provide life-changing perspective, say York University researchers. Getting wrapped up in the lives of characters strengthens your ability to understand others’ feelings. Seeing the world through the eyes of Jane Eyre, for example, may make it easier for you to relate to your sister-in-law’s viewpoint.

Reading can encourage life goals.

Reading can encourage life goals.Jupiterimages/
Reading about someone who overcame obstacles may motivate you to meet your own goals, Ohio State University researchers found. If you’d like a raise, following a character into the boss’s office may give you the courage to make the same request. The more you identify with a character and experience the events as if they were happening to you, the more likely you’ll be to take action.

Reading helps you feel more connected.

Reading helps you feel more connected.iStockphoto/Thinkstock
When you identify with characters in a book, you experience a kind of real-life relationship that can enhance your sense of inclusion, say psychologists at the University of Buffalo. In other words, reading Marley & Me may increase camaraderie with dog owners in the park.

Reading can brighten your day.

Reading can brighten your day.iStockphoto/Thinkstock
A happy ending can lift your spirits, but novels may drum up positive feelings in more subtle ways too. Even minor events in the narrative may unearth warm memories. Does the lead character attend a beach barbecue?  You’ll likely reminisce about a sand-and-surf party you attended.

Reading can help you save cash.

Reading can help you save cash.iStockphoto/Thinkstock
The average novel costs between $8 (e-book) and $13 (paperback) and takes about six hours to read, reported Weight Watchers. Compare that to going to see a few movies, spending a day at an amusement park, or eating a few meals out—reading is a much more cost-effective splurge for your entertainment dollars. And don't forget your local library.

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