What are the benefits of reading books?

As a book blogger, I love reading but what are the benefits for those who regularly read and how can someone get into the habit? In this feature we will take a deep dive…

The benefits of reading

The first novel believed to have ever been written is “The Tale of Genji”, a 54 chapter novel written by Japanese author Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th Century. Since then of course millions of novels and books have been written by people all across the world in a variety of subjects.  Reading for pleasure remains a very popular past time, even in today’s world of social media.

Scientific research has shown that there are actually many mental and physical benefits to reading.

Reading Strengthens The Brain

There has been an increasing body of research which highlights how reading activates and strengthens the brain.

In one study  by the University of Los Angeles, conducted in 2014, sixteen adolescents of varying age and reading ability were tested using MRI scans. They were given several tests and the scans showed how reading involved a complex network of circuits and signals to the brain.

A further study conducted in 2013, where researchers again used MRI scans but this time more specifically to measure brain activity as they read Pompeii: A Novel, by Robert Harris. The study showed as the people tested read the novel in blocks of 1/9th per day and tension built, increasing parts of the brain lit up with activity. This activity also lasted for several days after the book was read. In particular there was activity in the somatosensory cortex which is part of the brain that responds to physical sensations such as movement and pain.

Helps Prevent Age-Related Cognitive Decline

Just like our physical muscles, the brain is also a muscle and as the saying goes “use it or lose it”. Reading can essentially be a workout for the brain which can help prevent declines in memory and brain function which occur naturally as we age. Research published in Neurology says frequent brain exercise can lower cognitive decline by up to 32 percent. This is true for many fiction books as you have to remember characters, plot points and history whilst reading, especially in between sessions which can help improve memory.

Not only that, regular reading can help prevent conditions such as Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia, developing later on in life (along with other brain engaging activities such as solving puzzles or playing chess). Indeed, Age UK recommends reading books and magazines as a way of keeping the brain engaged now and later in life.

Helps build empathy & Emotional Intelligence

Speaking of activity in the part of the brain that feels pain, research has again shown that those people who read fiction regularly, show a heightened ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

Researchers call this ability the “theory of mind” and it is essentially the idea of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is these skills which can help people to build, maintain and navigate social relationships. Though this benefit is more likely to occur in those who read regularly over a longer period of time than someone who reads fiction sporadically.

Improve concentration and focus

According to A Life in Productivity, in today’s digital world people get distracted every 40 seconds. From people coming over to talk to us, to our phones pinging with notifications from social media, messaging apps or that online purchase we are still waiting to be delivered. Distraction is common in today’s modern world.

However, when reading our minds often draw into and engage with whatever it is we are reading, as we pour over every detail. This increased focus on one thing can in turn translate into our daily lives as we learn to block out the white noise and focus on what is actually important.

Improved Analytical Skills

Have you ever read a thriller novel or murder mystery and been able to guess the ending before getting there? Well just there you have solved a problem with your analysis of the story so far.

This is another useful skill from reading which can translate into your everyday life.

Build Vocabulary

As we read more and more books by different authors, we obviously gain an increased exposure to different ways of expressing ourselves which can benefit various areas of our life. Researches in the 1960’s dubbed this “the Matthew effect”, based on the Biblical verse Matthew 13:12.

The verse says: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” The verse essentially sums up the idea of rich people getting richer and poor people getting poorer.

Research has shown that people who read regularly from a young age have a larger vocabulary, which they can apply into their everyday lives. This in turn grants them more opportunities such as higher grades at school, better jobs and climbing higher up the career ladder.

One of my favourite poets who I studied at school is Carol Ann Duffy and one poem of hers in particular highlights this really well. The poem is Education for Leisure.

As an aside, the poem was controversial at the time I was studying for my GCSE’s as a teacher in another school had complained over it’s depiction of knife crime. The poem became one which could be taught at the teacher’s discretion and thankfully my own English teacher wanted to teach us it, explaining that knife crime was around us anyway so it is better to discuss it through a poem in the classroom. You can read about that on the poem’s Wikipedia page.

The poem tells the story of a man who clearly hasn’t been educated to a very high level and as a result doesn’t have a job so has to walk the “two miles into town for signing on”. As a result the man gets increasingly frustrated and decides he is going to “play God” by killing first a fly then his goldfish. The poem ends on a sinister note when the man decides to turn his violence onto people:  “I get our bread-knife and go out. The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.”

I really love this poem for showing how important an education is for people and reading is a part of education. It also shows how abandoned people who aren’t well educated feel and potentially the repercussions of that that this man could go to prison and essentially become poorer from having a poor education by losing his liberty.

Improves mental health

An increasing concern for many people is the subject of mental health, especially during the recent lock downs caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was also highlighted recently in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, with world famous athletes such as American gymnast Simone Biles and British swimmer Adam Peaty, discussing in interviews the impact being an athlete has had on their mental health.

Reading has been shown to alleviate certain mental health symptoms. A study in 2009 measured the effects of yoga, humour and reading on students studying demanding health science courses in the US. The study found those that read for 30 minutes a day had lowered blood pressure, heart rate and feelings of psychological distress than those who didn’t. 

Reading is also said to help alleviate symptoms of depression. British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton describes this best when he wrote, “Consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.” People who suffer depression tend to feel lonely and isolated. Fiction books can provide a means of escapism as you explore the world inhabited by the characters whilst non-fiction books on the subject can provide self-help strategies to manage symptoms.

The reduction in stress levels from reading can also help improve sleep quality. This in turn can also benefit mental health conditions, some of which can reduce sleep quality which in turn can make the symptoms of the mental health condition worse, causing a vicious circle. However for these benefits, you should consider reading a physical book over a digital eBook as screens can emit blue-light which your brain can associate with daytime, meaning your brain will wake up rather than relax.

Expand knowledge

Of course this is fairly self-explanatory but reading books on a certain subject will help you to learn more about that subject which in turn expands knowledge and intelligence. This can be great for those one or two obscure questions in a pub quiz!

Of course this type of theoretical knowledge is learned best from non-fiction books but fiction books can contain some knowledge as well. Genres such as historical fiction take fictional characters but place them in a real historical setting so things can still be learnt from them.

One powerful idea I have read whilst researching this article is that in life things can be taken away from you – money, job, material things etc. However one thing which can’t is the knowledge you possess.

Free Entertainment

Reading can also benefit your wallet. Of course some people love buying books from the book shop and annotating them which is great but there can be several low cost ways to read cheaply.

The first is of course to become a member of your local library where you can borrow books to read in a wide range of genres, both fiction and non-fiction. Some libraries also have an eBook section online for those who like to read books electronically. Though again if reading is being used to relax be warned about the blue light emitted from these devices.

Online is also a great way to get free books. Amazon has many authors who have written books for free.

Also due to copyright law older books eventually fall into the “public domain” meaning anyone can copy them and many of these books are also available for free. Copyright law is different in every country but in the UK it is 70 years after the author’s death whereas in the US it is 95 years after publication. 

For example. the American novel the Great Gatsby in the UK has been in the public domain for 10 years – as F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote it in 1925, died in 1940, so 70 years on means the book entered the public domain in 2010. However in the US it is 95 years after publication so it only entered the public domain there in 2020.

In the UK, new books about to enter the public domain include George Orwell’s works Animal Farm and 1984.

It Burns Calories!

Most people would think reading is a fairly sedentary activity but for a bit of fun did you know it can actually burn calories?

When lying down a 140 pound person will burn around 50 calories an hour whilst sitting up a 140 pound person will burn 67 calories. The more you weigh, the more calories will burn as more energy is expended to circulate blood and tend to basic physiological functions so a 160 pound person will burn roughly 67 calories lying down and a 180 person will burn 86 calories when sitting.

Disclaimer though this isn’t enough to cause weight loss so you won’t get toned abs from reading alone! However there are plenty of books on diet and exercise which can definitely help in that area!

How to get back into reading

For those who have read the above and realised they have gotten out of the habit of reading and perhaps would like to start again, here are some top tips to get back into reading as a habit.

1) Choose something you think you will like

We have all been there and have memories of sitting in a dreary English lesson and reading books that we definitely did not enjoy. Even someone like me whose a book blogger and enjoys reading, can remember struggling through certain Shakespeare classes!

Don’t make your reading a chore, instead choose a subject or genre you are interested in. Take a look at what your other interests are. Here are some ideas:

  • If you like a murder-mystery TV series, try and find a murder-mystery novel.
  • If you like true crime documentaries on Netflix, you might be able to find a true crime novel or an expose (perhaps even written from the perspective of someone directly involved in the story).
  • Tie-in fiction. If you love a TV or movie series whether it be Doctor Who, Star Wars, Charmed – you can bet there is likely to be authors writing official tie in novels with more adventures from your favourite characters. Of course graphic novels and comics can also be an option for fans of superhero films and game series. 
  • Like to travel – have a look at some travel guides to learn more about the culture and history of where you are travelling to or to build a bucket list of new destinations.
  • Enjoy fitness / self-improvement apps – there are plenty of cookbooks, self-help guides and inspiration books written by inspirational people.
  • If you are time-limited, maybe start with shorter reads that you can get through quickly.

On a similar note if you find a book that you aren’t enjoying then don’t be afraid to stop. You won’t be asked to write an essay or an exam on it so don’t worry if the book isn’t for you.

2) Find gaps in your routine to read

Everyone has gaps in their schedule where they can spend just a couple of minutes reading per day.

My personal favourite times to read are just before bed whilst relaxing. Also, as I fit this blog around my day job, having a quick 10-minute burst of reading during my lunch break can be more interesting than scrolling mindlessly through Facebook and Instagram (sometimes I end up reading for my entire break as well).

Perhaps there are times when you can fit in a couple of minutes reading too? Maybe if you commute on a bus or train you can take a book with you or perhaps in your coffee or lunch break at work.

3) Always carry books with you

New habits are easier to stick to the easier you make them. Having a book to hand can help you to grab one when you feel like reading – it can also help you to be more conscious of your schedule to find those all-important reading times as well.

If you don’t fancy carrying a heavy book around with you then eBooks can also be a godsend – just be careful not to sidetrack yourself onto Facebook, or read them late at night which can reduce sleep quality! However I find an eBook app on my phone can be a convenient alternative to lugging heavy books around! 

4) Try audiobooks

Of course this article has focused mainly on reading actual books, but there is nothing wrong with listening to them as well. In a follow up article I will look into the specific benefits for audio books but an audio book can allow you to multitask and listen to more stories during times where you are otherwise busy such as in the gym, cleaning the house or during your morning commute if you don’t fancy reading a book.

5) Join a Book Club

You can also make reading a social affair by joining a book club. Here a book is chosen by the group for you to go away and read and then you come back to discuss the book, it’s characters, settings and any thoughts or feelings you had.

A book club can be a great way to meet like-minded readers, get book recommendations and also make friends. It can also help by giving you an element of accountability to finish a book in time for the next meeting.

6) Stop At A Cliffhanger

This can be excruciating but if you reach a tense cliffhanger, why not stop in the same way your favourite TV show makes you wait for next week? This will encourage you to come back to the book to find out what happens next and can help pull you through it to the end.

7) Start Small

If you haven’t read in a while and are unsure about getting through a large novel, as explained above you can also try a shorter novella. If you feel even this might not be doable then see what else you could read – perhaps a  regular magazine or newspaper?

There are of course the daily newspapers as well as magazines covering a whole host of subjects – from TV, technology, fashion, fitness, home and garden, history, etc. A magazine or newspaper can be a great way to start to get into reading in small digestible chunks. I have also found through newspapers and magazines recommendations for books that I have then gone onto read – perhaps a subject or article will pique your interest and encourage you to read more about it.

From a time constraint perspective, maybe commit to a very small goal to start you off in the habit e.g. perhaps reading for just 5 minutes a day and see where that takes you.

8) Make a list

Having a list can help in two ways. Firstly, it can provide accountability and give you satisfaction as you tick off another book on your reading list.

Also by making a list you always have the next thing on your list to read so trying to decide what to read next doesn’t hold you back.

Sites such as Amazon and Good reads allow you to create Wishlists and even library websites will allow you to save books to come back to at a later time.

9) Get out of the "good reader" mindset

This is closely tied in with making reading something enjoyable in the first place and giving up on a book which isn’t interesting.

Many people often feel there are books they “should” or “ought” to read – this can sometimes be a hang over from those aforementioned school lessons. Instead choose a book that you enjoy, even if it isn’t considered “literary” enough. Whether it be Katie Price’s many autobiographies, series such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games or Twilight (Though I haven’t read Twilight yet, for the other two I will argue with anyone who says that they aren’t literary enough!). Reading is for you so make sure it is a book you want to read.

10) Create an ideal reading environment

Find somewhere comfortable to read that is quiet and distraction free so you can focus on the book in front of you. You could also make it more relaxing with cushions and blankets. 

Maybe also have a nice relaxing drink of hot chocolate, candles etc. Reading should be part of your me time so make it something you want to do in a place you want to be in.

Conclusion

As a book blogger I always advocate the benefits of reading though it has been fascinating to discover just how beneficial reading is for people’s mental and physical health.

If you like this article, or have any other tips to share to help people get into reading then let me know in the thoughts down below!

Image Credits:

Featured Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

Brain Image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Friends in group image: StockSnap from Pixabay

Meditation Image: Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Commute Image: Anna Ventura from Pixabay

List Image: Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Woman listening through headphones image: PourquoiPas from Pixabay

Flowers and book Image: Sofia Iivarinen from Pixabay

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