Neurology and Neurosurgery

A must-read: Physical and mental health benefits of reading books

Young woman in a hammock and reading a book outside near a lake. Reading has many brain-boosting benefits and is good for your mental and physical health.


Reading books can transport you to new worlds and also transform your body and mind


By Paul Wright, MD, Senior Vice President and System Chair of the Neuroscience Institute, Nuvance Health


Want to know the secret to living multiple lives, meeting people from around the world and even time travel? You can experience these things through books plus the very real physical and mental health benefits of reading. Find out what happens in your brain when you read, and bookmark these fun facts to inspire your next reading session.


Who’s reading books these days?


According to Pew Research Center, 75% of adults in the United States said they read a book in the last 12 months. However, Americans are reading fewer books now than they did in the past according to a U.S. Gallup Poll. While the poll didn’t identify why Americans are reading fewer books, we can all take an educated guess — from jam-packed family, work and daily life responsibilities to countless other options for entertainment, you may not have the time or desire to read a book.


I’m also guessing you’ll want to find at least 20 minutes to read each day when you find out the brain-boosting benefits of books. And if you’re already a voracious reader, you’ll appreciate all the ways books are contributing to your well-being.


What happens in your brain when you read?


Reading a book is like eating a superfood for your brain. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that reading is a complex task involving different parts of the brain. By observing changes to blood flow in the brain, researchers can see that reading stimulates the brain’s neural pathways. This stimulation enhances brain activity, memory and cognitive function — ultimately boosting your creativity and expanding your capacity to learn.


What are the physical health benefits of reading books?


Reading has physical benefits in addition to being an intellectual workout. Research shows that regular reading can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and improve sleep quality. Researchers have also found a link between reading books and longevity; reading keeps your brain active and promotes mental and emotional fitness.


Related content: Can staying hydrated by drinking water really help you live longer?


What are the mental health benefits of reading books?


Cognitive health: Reading enhances your critical thinking skills and creativity. It also broadens your vocabulary, boosts your knowledge and stimulates your imagination.


Related content: Your brain on music: how music can enhance your workout and brain health


Emotional health: Books can make you feel all the feels, from happiness and surprise to sadness, fear and anger. Experiencing a variety of emotions can help build your resilience and ability to deal with difficult situations. It can also help you develop empathy and connect with people by learning about other cultures and experiences through storytelling.


Entertainment: There are many options for entertainment especially with digital devices and streaming services making shows, movies, music and podcasts more accessible now than ever before. Some of you may not consider books a form of entertainment, but they certainly can be. Books can make us laugh and cry and create intrigue and excitement. Being entertained also has positive health benefits including releasing endorphins in your brain. These feel-good hormones help you relax, manage pain and relieve stress.


Related content: Your brain on laughter: what happens in your brain when you laugh?


Stress relief: Speaking of stress relief, escaping into the captivating world of books can help lower your heart rate and relax your muscles. Books are also a healthy way to help you compartmentalize when you focus on a story instead of a stressful event.


Related content: The ultimate guide to beating work burnout: effective tips and tricks


Social engagement: Engaging in the world of books can contribute to your social life. Staying social has big benefits including preventing isolation, which is a risk factor for depression and dementia.


Here are ways to expand your connections and book collection:


  • Join a book club, either in person or online.
  • Create a book swap with family and friends.
  • Participate in groups on social media with fellow bookworms or specific book genre enthusiasts.
  • Opt in for “suggested reading” lists such as through your e-reader or social media.
  • Check out your local library — frequenting a library can also give you a sense of community.


If you engage with reading groups, don’t shy away from a lively debate about a book’s meaning. A good debate can enhance your brain health through creative and persuasive thinking and problem-solving.


What if you don’t like to read books?


If you don’t like reading books, that’s okay. But given the positive benefits on your overall well-being, consider starting small and reading just 20 minutes a day. Here are some ways you can ease into reading books:


  • Swap scrolling through your phone for reading just one time per day.
  • Develop a routine such as reading before bedtime or sip your favorite beverage when you read.
  • Select books on topics you’re curious about and really like.
  • Research what people you admire read to connect with them through books, whether a celebrity, colleague, parent or best friend.


The bottom line: Whether you prefer fiction or non-fiction, short stories or novels, grab an e-reader or paperback to reap the many physical and mental benefits of reading books. Reading books can keep your brain active and healthy, boost your mood and mental health and let you endlessly explore.


Learn more about neurology and neurosurgery services at the Nuvance Health Neuroscience Institute.