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Health benefits of reading

Bookworms, rejoice: Reading is great for your health. We got the scoop on the health benefits of reading from Angela Buttimer, MS, NCC, RYT, LPC, a facilitator at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont.

Reading reduces stress

Studies have shown reading helps reduce stress, likely because it requires concentration and focus. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that participants who read for just six minutes experienced reduced muscle tension and a slower heart rate.

Reducing your stress is also good for your immune system, particularly if you are undergoing cancer treatment. Stress causes the body to produce the stress hormone cortisol, which leads to inflammation in the body. Inflammation, experts say, may play a role in cancer growth or recurrence.

Reading helps you sleep better

"Reading is an excellent way to relax and can be a great nighttime ritual," says Buttimer.

We know the bright light from digital devices, such as a smartphone, television or computer, can hinder quality sleep, so reading a book is an ideal way to unwind before bedtime.

Reading keeps your mind sharp

Studies have found reading regularly may slow mental decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. While scientists don't know the exact mechanism of how this works, research has indicated some benefits.

Reading can improve your relationships

Reading can also help you develop empathy toward others.

"Reading about people who are different from us can help us understand another person's life experience and give us gratitude for our own life experience," says Buttimer. "It's also helpful to read books about people who have gone through the same things we have. They may have a way of describing their experience that helps us articulate our own experience."

What to read for better health

Buttimer recommends getting outside of your comfort zone when it comes to the book genres you select.

"Read something new and different. This is one of the forms of positivity: Cultivating interest and curiosity in new topics," she explains. "For example, if you're curious about meditation, read a book on the topic."

What not to read for better health

Not all books are helpful for reducing stress or boosting health.

"We have mirror neurons in our brains. When we read stressful content, our brain interprets it as if it's happening to us," says Buttimer.

She adds, "In my mindfulness class, I caution against reading too many negative things, such as crime novels. Some people enjoy them, yet they are violent and full of negative information that's going into your mind. Once that information is in your consciousness, that bell can't be un-rung. Watching or reading negative, violent or stressful content can have a detrimental effect over the long-term."

What if you don't enjoy reading?

If you don't enjoy reading for fun, try these tips to help you develop a reading habit:

  • Listen to an audiobook while you complete chores, commute or cook.

  • Choose a book that has shorter chapters and read a little bit at a time, such as five minutes a day.

  • Set realistic goals for yourself. Aim to read a chapter a day or a week. Go at your own pace.

If you make time for reading like you would exercise, meditation or preparing healthy meals, you can make it a beneficial new habit (and hobby!) in your life.

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