In today’s screen-dominated world, choosing to open a book may seem less enticing than relaxing in front of the TV or scrolling through social media.
And while it’s true that easily accessible, bitesize chunks of entertainment and information are often less demanding than delving into a book, the rewards of the written word are far greater.
From boosting our brain health and reducing stress to kick-starting our imagination and gifting us with knowledge, reading isn’t only a helpful tool but also a tonic for our minds and bodies.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of 10 benefits of reading for the brain, body, and beyond…
1. Reading can reduce stress levels
Anyone who loves literature knows the calming power of a good book. Science has proven that curling up on the sofa and losing yourself in a story, or delving deeper into a subject you’re interested in, can be a great way to unwind from the stresses of the day.
In 2009, neuropsychologists found that just six minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by up to 68% – which is more than other popular stress-busting activities like listening to music or going for a walk. Experts say this is because when we concentrate on a book, our heart rate slows, and the tension in our muscles eases.
More recent studies have also come to similar conclusions. After monitoring the mental health of university students for a year, these researchers found that recreational reading was linked with reduced psychological distress – including decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression.
So, if you’re feeling tense or a little overwhelmed, why not try to work some regular reading time into your schedule?
2. Reading can improve language and communication skills
One of the more obvious benefits of reading regularly is that it can boost our written and verbal communication skills.
A key reason for this is that books expose us to a wide range of different words and uses of grammar, which improves our vocabulary and general command of language. This can help us understand others better and express ourselves in a variety of situations – from sending work emails to having discussions with loved ones.
Having good communication skills can lead to improved relationships (both personally and professionally), as it better equips us to resolve conflicts quickly and avoid misunderstandings.
3. Reading might be able to boost our focus and attention span
As Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus, tells us, our attention is “the most powerful resource [we] have to get stuff done, become more creative, and live a meaningful life”. But with distractions like busy work schedules and pinging devices, it’s also one of our most limited resources – and experts suggest that our attention spans are only getting shorter.
However, studies like this one tell us there’s a strong link between good reading skills and long attention spans.
Unlike other, passive forms of entertainment (like TV, music, and Instagram), reading is a proactive activity. We have to intentionally focus on the task to understand what the author is saying. This means that every time we pick up a book, we’re practising the skill of concentration – making us better able to focus in other areas of our lives.
4. Reading fiction can increase empathy
One of the most surprising benefits of reading fiction is that it can increase our ability to empathise with others.
This study gave people what’s called the ‘Mind in the Eyes’ test, in which participants are shown images of pairs of eyes and asked to identify what emotion the owner of the eyes is feeling. The results found that fiction readers scored higher on this test than non-fiction readers.
Similarly, this research from Princeton University used brain scans to reveal that reading fiction stimulates the part of our brain that helps us imagine what others are thinking and feeling.
This is likely to be because, when we read fiction, we form a connection with the characters and often imagine their experiences as our own. As the saying goes, we walk a mile in their shoes. By identifying with characters in this way, we practise recognising emotions and empathising with others – which can, in turn, improve the way we socialise and build relationships.
5. Reading can protect against age-related cognitive decline
As we age, we naturally experience a mild decline in our brainpower. For example, we may notice a slight reduction in thinking speed and/or memory.
However, there are a few ways that we can slow and even protect ourselves against age-related cognitive decline. Exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet are two of the most effective. But research has indicated that reading might be helpful too.
Because reading is a cognitive activity – which means it involves processing information – it effectively gives the brain a workout. Therefore, studies like this show that frequent reading is linked with a reduced risk of cognitive decline in older adults.
As well as preventing a natural decline in brainpower, research has also indicated that frequently engaging in cognitive activities like reading (as well as playing games and writing) may help to delay the development of dementia. However, more research is needed to confirm this.
6. Reading can lead to better quality sleep
Getting good quality sleep is essential for a healthy heart and immune system, and generally extending our life expectancy – and one of the ways you can improve your chances of getting long, deep, and restful sleep is by reading before bed.
This 2021 study asked half of its participants to read a book before bed and the other half not to over seven days. Throughout the experiment, each participant was asked to evaluate their sleep quality.
The results showed that 42% of the people who read a book before bed experienced improved sleep quality compared with 28% of those who didn’t. The participants in the first group also experienced fewer problems staying asleep.
One of the reasons for this could be that reading takes our mind off the stresses and worries of our days. Or perhaps reading before bed means we spend less time on devices like smartphones, which emit blue light and can disrupt our sleep.
To learn more tips for getting a good night’s rest, you can visit the sleep and fatigue section of our website.
7. Reading can enhance creativity
When we read, we introduce ourselves to new ideas, knowledge, perspectives, and cultures – which we can use to be more creative. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, reading ignites our imagination and inspires us to come up with original concepts of our own.
This study found that people who regularly engage in reading and writing are typically more creative – especially when it comes to elaboration. Elaboration is when we use creative thinking to add details to an idea to fill in the gaps and improve it. It’s particularly handy when working in a group setting.
You don’t have to be an artist to benefit from enhanced creativity. From solving problems at work to coming up with interesting date night ideas, creative thinking can be useful in every aspect of life. So why not pick up a book and kickstart your imagination?
8. Reading can act as a powerful motivator
Spend some time perusing the shelves of any library or bookshop, and you’ll find a vast array of inspiring stories – from fictional tales of courage and justice, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, to real-life rags to riches stories.
When we read stories about people persevering in the face of hardship, overcoming challenges, and achieving great things, our understanding of what’s possible expands. Reading can give us with a fresh sense of optimism and make us think: if they did it, why can’t I?
For some ideas for inspiring books to read, you might want to take a look at the BBC’s list of the 100 most inspiring novels of all time, or check out our article; 16 compelling autobiographies that will stick with you for days.
9. Reading can give us the knowledge to achieve our goals
There’s no question that reading can give people the knowledge needed to achieve their goals. Just look at some of the most successful people around.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who reads around 50 books a year, has said several times that his advice to any young person would be to “read a lot and discover a skill you enjoy”.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett has also stressed the importance of reading. Buffett, who reportedly reads for over five hours a day, told students at Columbia University it was one of the secrets to his success, saying, “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”
To help you retain the information from the books you read, why not try active reading? Active reading is the process of purposefully engaging with a text – for example, by highlighting important passages and making notes. Doing this can help you understand what the author is saying and cement facts into your brain.
To learn more about active reading, take a look at this article from The Open University.
10. Reading can offer a unique form of escapism
While everyday life can be joyful and exciting, it can also be boring, stressful, and overwhelming. And while we shouldn’t try to shut our problems out entirely, at times when you just need a little respite, books can offer a welcome escape.
Take historical books and science fiction novels, for example. These can transport readers through time and space, enabling them to relive the past or explore distant futures and worlds. Or, if you’re feeling down, a romance novel with a happy ending can do wonders to lift your spirits.
Reading allows our minds and imaginations to reach far past our material circumstances – from bustling cities halfway across the world to undiscovered galaxies. And when you escape into the pages of a book, you might find that you emerge a more knowledgeable and compassionate person than when you went in.
From improving our social skills to giving us the knowledge we need to achieve our goals, the profound impact of reading on our brains, bodies, and beyond can’t be overstated.
And remember, you don’t need to read something overly intellectual to reap many of these benefits. Whether you’re devouring a page-turner by the beach, flicking through your favourite magazine, or delving into a book about science, every word is a step towards personal growth.
For ideas on what to read next, why not check out the books and literature section of our website and discover articles like 27 of the best must-read books and 12 superb short stories you can find online for free? Or, if you’re looking to make reading part of your routine, take a look at our top tips.
And finally, if you’re interested in joining a lively reading community, you might want to join one of our book clubs over on Rest Less Events.
Are you a reader? If so, what are some of the best benefits you’ve noticed? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.