Read Across America…for Your Health

You probably know the month of March includes holidays like Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day and Earth Day. But one of our favorite holidays may have snuck by you—Read Across America Day (it was March 2nd). The holiday shares Dr. Seuss’ birthday, and it’s a nationwide celebration of reading sponsored by the National Education Association.

We all know reading is great for your mind, vocabulary and entertainment. But more and more, research demonstrates reading can have a positive impact on health.

A quick note: For the purposes of this article, when we say “reading,” we’re not talking about glancing through email, perusing a magazine or examining the back of a cereal box. A team from Yale found reading chapter books can lead to a boost in brain power that scanning a newspaper or magazine doesn’t. So in honor of the day that honors cracking open a book, here are four ways reading might actually improve your health.

1. Reading reduces stress.
Stress can cause headaches, pain, upset stomach and sleep problems. Left unchecked, it can contribute to heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other health problems. Clearly, too much stress is a bad thing. We should all have techniques for controlling it.

Yep, that’s where reading comes in. A study from the University of Sussex showed reading might be one of the best ways to reduce stress. In fact, the study indicated a little reading goes a long way. When subjects read silently for six minutes, their heart rate and muscle tension decreased markedly. Their stress levels reduced by two thirds.

Psychologists think this might have something to do with the fact that, while we read, our minds are distracted by the world inside the book. While our brains are distracted, our body reacts. The tension in our muscles (including our heart) decreases.

Reading was proven to be more relaxing than other common forms of stress-relief like listening to music, playing video games or walking. We’re not saying don’t go for a walk when you’re stressed. Just remember, a stroll through a good book could be even more beneficial.

2. Reading can help you sleep.
Many of us have formed the habit of staring at some type of screen right before bedtime. Unfortunately, staring at a TV, phone, tablet computer or e-reader is directly linked to less REM sleep, the special stage of sleep when our bodies repair tissue, strengthen our immune system, and build bone and muscle. The result? We wake up groggy and unfocused. Sound familiar?

Sadly, our kids aren’t immune to this problem either. According to research published in Pediatrics, 54% of children sleep near a small screen like a smartphone or tablet. Those children get 20 minutes less sleep per night compared to kids who go to bed without a screen. And the screen-before-bed kids are more likely to complain about lack of sleep.

On the other hand, reading a book before can help us, and our kids, relax before bedtime. Creating a bedtime ritual, like reading at a consistent time, can train the body to wind down and prepare for restorative sleep.

3. Reading slows cognitive decline (and may protect against dementia).
Some believe staying mentally active throughout life might slow the progress of, or even prevent, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. A study by researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago set out to test this hypothesis. As part of the study, a group of older Americans had their brain functions tested every year. After they passed away, the participants’ brains were examined for signs of dementia. The results were astonishing.

The test participants who reported regularly engaging in “cognitive activities” like reading, visiting libraries and writing letters had a slower rate of cognitive decline late in life than those who didn’t engage in these activities.

This idea needs more research since the original study was a small one. But books are free at the local library. Why not give it a try? You could be fighting cognitive decline and enjoying a good book simultaneously!

4. You could live longer.
This doozy of a finding comes to us from researchers at the Yale School of Public Health. In 2016, they dug into twelve years of data from a program called the -University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. As they examined the data, an interesting and promising pattern emerged. People who read books for thirty minutes or more a day over several years lived an average of two years longer than people who didn’t read.

And people who said they read books more than three hours a week were 23% less likely to die than those who only read newspapers or magazines. If that’s not a good reason to pick up a good book, we don’t know what is!

Read Across America Day may be over, but every day is a great opportunity to read for your health. So do your mind, your health, and your family a favor, and pick up a good book today.


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