When it comes to your health, curling up with a good book is as beneficial
as a set of bicep curls. "Reading is a form of exercise that makes
you stronger emotionally and mentally," says
James DeCock, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at
Mission Heritage Medical Group.
A new study in the journal
Trends in Cognitive Sciences supports that idea. The research found that reading fiction helps people
develop greater empathy and social understanding, serving as what the
study authors call a "flight simulator" for readers to test
their people skills.
"Think about the last book you were engrossed in; the story moved
you," Dr. DeCock says. "You were relating to the characters
and their situations, and as a reader you can extrapolate those experiences
and apply them to your own life and how you view the world. A good book
gives you a better understanding of a character's life, and by reading
it, you have a better understanding of how others think, act and feel.
That can translate to enhanced empathy for others."
It's just the latest addition to the body of research on the health
benefits of reading. "Past studies have noted positive effects such
as improved thinking skills, stress relief and a lower risk of declining
brain function late in life," Dr. DeCock says. "Brain pathways
have shown heightened connectivity not just during the process of reading,
but for at least five days after as well. A book can change your life,
but it can also change your brain--it's like a workout for the mind."
And as with exercise, proper form is key. "To prevent neck and back
aches, you should sit up with your back leaning against something for
support; if needed, use a towel or small pillow to support the lower back,"
Dr. DeCock says. "Keep your shoulders relaxed, not hunched, and support
your arms with pillows or an armrest so they don't get tired from
holding the book. And it's important to not let your neck tilt forward
as you read, as that can cause neck pain and contribute to poor posture--hold
the book at a height and distance that allows you to comfortably look
straight ahead, not down. And even if your book is a real page-turner,
get up and take frequent breaks--it gets the body moving and gives your
eyes a rest."
And if you're like many book lovers who need to read one more chapter
before going to sleep, remember it is best not to read in bed as it tends
to teach your body to be awake in bed. "I like to read quietly on
the couch as I wind down, then get up and go to bed which can alter your
sleep," Dr. DeCock says. "And if you're a nighttime reader,
you should go the old-fashioned route and skip reading on a tablet, as
the light it emits can make it harder to fall asleep. It's difficult
enough to put down a good book--you don't want it keeping you up at
Check out Dr. DeCock’s recent reading list:
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo