The COVID-19 pandemic hit numerous industries hard. Amazingly, books made it through relatively unscathed. In fact, despite many bookstores closing their doors for much of 2020, sales hit an eight-year high in the UK, per The Guardian. The upward trend carried over to the U.S., too, as sales were up more than 6% in the first three quarters of 2020 compared to 2019 (via ABC 7). Experts chalk the unexpected boom up to a run of summer bestsellers, increasing demand for children’s books by parents-turned-homeschool-teachers, and a surge of interest in social justice texts. But also, reading is just plain old good for you, and just about everyone knows it.
The mental and emotional benefits of reading are fairly obvious. For example, reading has been shown to increase empathy, improve brain connectivity, fight depression, build your vocabulary, prevent age-related cognitive decline, and help you get to sleep (via Healthline). But reading also gives you some surprising physical benefits as well. Here’s what happens to your body if you turn your dusty and purely aesthetic coffee table books into a daily hobby.
Reading significantly lowers your stress levels and heart rate
When researchers set out to discover which traditional method of relaxation works best, reading came out on top. According to The Telegraph, participants of the study first underwent a range of rest and exercises to increase their stress levels and heart rate. They were then subjected to the methods of relaxation like listening to music, playing video games, going for a stroll, sipping a piping hot cup of tea, or reading silently for six minutes. Neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis reported that the latter activity had the largest effect, ultimately reducing stress levels by a whopping 68%.
“Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation,” Lewis told The Telegraph. “This is particularly poignant in uncertain economic times when we are all craving a certain amount of escapism.” He also noted that it doesn’t really matter what pick you pick up. Whether you opt for a gory mystery novel or the latest self-help book to make its rounds, it’s the actual act of reading that causes you to enter a more relaxed state. “By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination,” Lewis says.
Reading a chapter a day keeps the doctor away
Another relevant study focused on whether or not reading a chapter of a book each day increases a person’s survival advantage, or length of life. The results, which were published in Social Science & Medicine, indicated that those who regularly read books for 12 years experienced a 20% reduction in their risk of dying compared to non-book readers. Based on these numbers, book readers can add almost a year to their life. This is because reading involves a cognitive mediator, which is a mental process that occurs between an activity and a response (per Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine). It’s similar to how cognitive behavioral therapy affects your mind and body (via Journal of Psychotherapy Integration).
Moreover, these findings proved true regardless of the gender, education, wealth, or health of participants. Reading did, however, have an even more powerful effect on the elderly, and reading books proved much more effective than reading newspapers or magazines. So if you want to live until Elon Musk starts colonizing Mars, you’ll have to put down that People Magazine and head on over to your local library. The glorious smell of old books — and a longer, less stressful life — awaits you.
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