The average American reads for about 20.4 minutes per day. The older population tends to enjoy this pastime more frequently, spending more time reading than younger adults (those between the ages of 20-34 years old), who, on average, read as little as 7 minutes each day.1 This means that people dedicate only about 1% of their time to reading!2 Now compare that to the daily 3 hours people typically squander watching television.2 The internet, social media, and video games provide a vast selection of entertainment for the modern individual. However, reading literature is a unique and distinctly beneficial activity, enough so that people should reconsider its place in their day-to-day schedules.
Reading books offers a wide range of social and cognitive benefits, as it is, literally, exercise for the brain. As MRI scans reveal, reading activates and strengthens the brain’s complex circuitry.3 Words on a page engage the brain in more sophisticated ways than other forms of media, as it allows the brain to pause, process, and imagine information when video and audio does not.4 According to a 2013 study, as tension builds in a story, more parts of the reader’s brain light up with activity. Most of this increased activity occurs in the somatosensory cortex, the region of the brain responsible for responding to physical stimuli.3
As the common expression goes: “you cannot truly know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” As it turns out, due to the way reading activates the somatosensory cortex and engages the brain in relation to movement and sensation, readers are transported into the character’s shoes, or, at least, are given the closest approximate experience. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Gregory Burns, “the neurological changes…linked to physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the protagonist’s body.”4 Experiencing a character—someone potentially very different from the reader in geographical location, historical time, and life events—in such an intimate way offers the reader a vivid change in perspective and allows them to understand the experiences of those who are unlike them. In this way, reading can turn someone into a more empathetic, caring, friendly, and socially aware individual, granting them “heightened ability to understand the feelings and beliefs of others.”3 Additionally, reading about other people and observing their social interactions teaches vital social skills to the reader, helping them better navigate social situations and strengthen their interpersonal relationships.3
Perhaps obvious to most, reading increases the reader’s vocabulary. Less obvious, however, are the valuable advantages afforded to those who can use language in a sophisticated and effective manner. While some may not care about “sounding fancy,” studies show that a bigger vocabulary improves standardized test scores and creates more job opportunities. In fact, 69% of employers claim to prefer candidates with “‘soft’ skills like the ability to communicate effectively.”3 Reading also strengthens one’s critical thinking skills, such as when one discusses a book with others or makes predictions about the ending.5 Becoming an articulate speaker and refined critical thinker can lead to professional benefits such as promotions or improved client relations.
Reading is also an effective stress reducer (perhaps for the stress that accompanies a promotion or new job). Studies find that reading lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and overall feelings of psychological distress as effectively as yoga or laughing3 (and laughter is the best medicine after all), and it reduces stress levels better than listening to music or drinking tea.6 Surprisingly, reading for as little as six minutes per day can reduce stress by 68%.7 Even 20-year-olds can manage that much!1
And a stress-free mind rests easier, which is just one of the ways books can assist with the process of falling asleep (a difficult process for many). Incorporating books into one’s bedtime routine calms down and prepares the body for sleep. Additionally, it provides an alternative to online activities, as the bright light emitted from computers and television screens are known detriments to dozing. Getting enough sleep is critical for overall health and longevity.6
Books can even serve as a fountain of youth of sorts by preventing cognitive decline, boosting memory and concentration, and even prolonging one’s lifespan. A 2013 study discovered that those who partook in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, completing puzzles, or solving math problems, experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline later in life and were less likely to develop “the plaques, lesions, and tau-protein tangles” associated with dementia.3 The common phrase “use it or lose it” most definitely applies to brain function, as consistent mental stimulation and brain exercise helps maintain brain health in old age. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center “found that people who participated in mentally challenging activities, both early and late in life, had a slower rate of decline in memory compared to those who did not engage in such activities.”8 In fact, the memory and thinking skills of those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities were protected even when damage presented in their brains.8
Stories themselves give readers a lot to remember. From different characters to various plot points, just following a story serves as an exercise in memorization. New memories (such as those made when reading) create new synapses in the brain and bolster preexisting synapses, physically strengthening the pathways in the brain, improving short term memory, and stabilizing the person’s moods.5 With all the distractions in life—from work, to technology, to the news—books serve as a single focal point throughout the duration of the reading session, giving the brain a break from multi-tasking and re-teaching it to concentrate on one project at a time.5
And, as outrageous as it seems, reading can even lead to a longer life. A 2017 study found that readers had a “20% reduction in the risk of mortality” over the 12 years the researchers followed them,9 and they lived 2 years longer than those who did not read books.3
With all this in mind, people should prioritize reading alongside cooking healthy meals, sleeping sufficiently, and working out. With as little 30 minutes of reading per day, people can improve their health and wellbeing in a variety of ways.2 Books are key element to the foundation a healthy, long, fulfilling, and happy life. And, as most would admit, sitting on the couch to read is certainly much easier than running a mile or eating more vegetables. Finally, a health kick that almost anyone can do!
- Watson, Amy. “Reading Habits in the U.S. – Statistics & Facts.” Statista.com. Jan. 16, 2019. Reading habits in the U.S. – Statistics & Facts | Statista
- “12 Great Benefits of Reading 30 Minutes A Day.” The Reading Warrior. 12 Great Benefits of Reading 30 Minutes A Day – The Reading Warrior
- Stanborough, Rebecca Joy. “Benefits of Reading Books: How it Can Positively Affect Your Life.” Healthline. Oct. 15, 2019. Benefits of Reading Books: For Your Physical and Mental Health (healthline.com)
- “Why Should You Read Every Day: Scientific Benefits of Reading Books.” The Scientific World. Mar. 1, 2021. Why Should You Read Every Day: Scientific Benefits of Reading Books – The Scientific World – Let’s have a moment of science (scientificworldinfo.com)
- Winter, Catherine. “10 Benefits of Reading: Why You Should Read Every Day.” Lifehack. 10 Benefits of Reading: Why You Should Read Every Day (lifehack.org)
- Ragsdale, Melissa. “If You Read Before Bed, You Need to Know How It Affects Your Sleep Cycle.” Bustle.com. Oct. 4, 2017. 5 Ways Reading Before Bed Can Help You Sleep Better At Night (bustle.com)
- Le Cunff, Anne-Laure. “The Science-Based Benefits of Reading.” Ness Labs. The science-based benefits of reading – Ness Labs
- “Keep Reading to Keep Alzheimer’s At Bay.” Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. April 7, 2014. Keep Reading to Keep Alzheimer’s at Bay | Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation (alzinfo.org)
- Bavishi A, et al. “The Survival Advantage of Reading Books.” Innovation in Aging vol 1. Jun. 30, 2017. THE SURVIVAL ADVANTAGE OF READING BOOKS (nih.gov)