Science says read more! You’ll improve your health with every word
If you’re reading this story, you’re cutting your risk of a heart attack.
That got your attention, huh?
Actually, for any couch potato now thinking that reading 900 words is as good as running a 10K, think again. But a study by the University of Sussex in England, reported by The Telegraph, found that reading can help control stress, and while the American Heart Association (and they know a thing or two about hearts) says more research is needed to see if there’s a direct link between stress and heart disease, the connection has been alleged since the beginning of recorded history. Alright, maybe not that long, but you get my point.
So does reading this short story — or the world’s longest novel, Artamene, with its whopping 13,095 pages — make your heart healthier even if you park your fanny on the couch everyday? Probably. Let me explain.
Despite there being no scientific evidence of a direct connection to heart disease (a study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School published earlier this year in The Lancet raises the possibility), stress can cause issues that negatively affect your health. And these issues can cause heart-related problems, such as increasing your blood pressure by causing your pulse to rise and your blood vessels to narrow — each of which can damage the coronary arteries.
Studies also link stress to blood clotting, which isn’t good for blood flow. Blood clots can travel to the lungs and brain, which in turn increases the risk of heart attack. You may recall that secretary of state Hillary Clinton was hospitalized for a blood clot to the head in 2012. In her case, it was not clear whether the fall that led to her concussion a month earlier caused the clot or if the clot led to the fall. Either way, blood clots can be dangerous.
The point is, even if you’re not secretary of state, the stress of juggling work and family and everything else does a number on you. That’s why it’s important to unwind and relax. And that’s where reading comes in.
According to researchers at the University of Sussex, reading is the best way to re-energize. Their work provides scientific evidence of how effective just six minutes of reading can be to reduce stress levels by more than two thirds. And reading works better and faster than other things we do to disconnect our brains — like listening to music or walking the dog. Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation,” said David Lewis, MD, who headed the Sussex study.
So reading will reduce stress in your life, lower your blood pressure, and likely strengthen your heart — even if you’re a couch potato. But there’s another great benefit. Reading exercises your brain, keeping your mind working at its best, protecting you from certain diseases and actually keeping ageing at bay.
In fact, it’s with our brain power that we see the most direct effect of reading. That’s why researchers in recent years have been using their laboratories and hi-tech equipment to look inside our heads to see what actually happens when we pick up a book.
A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago showed that older adults who read regularly were 2½ times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the study claims TV watching may increase the risk).
Heading the study was Robert Freidland, MD, a professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. Dr. Freidland says people who don’t exercise their gray matter stand a chance of losing brain power. At the same time, reading boosts brain power by stimulating formation of new brain cells.
Plus get this: scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis determined that reading — even something as short as my story — involves 17 regions of the brain. Talk about a 4-minute burst of fitness. I bet you didn’t know you are interval training right now.
Another effect of reading is that it improves our mood. It makes sense that you feel happier and less irritable after finishing a good novel. For people with poor social skills, their lack of social awareness can have powerful negative consequences at work and in relationships — and yet it is possible through reading to build better relationships by improving social awareness. Indeed, numerous studies have linked reading fiction to better performance on social awareness tests.
So if you’re looking for an extra boost to your health, maybe instead of putting your head between your knees and taking deep breaths you should throw on your sneakers and head to your neighborhood bookstore. While it won’t save you time at the gym, relaxation is a huge component of staying healthy and science says losing yourself in a good novel — whether you live in the heart of a bustling city or down a quite country lane — can totally chill you out (won’t my millennial kids be surprised that I used that word?).
Oh, speaking about good novels, my favorite is The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille. Full disclosure: I’m Italian, and anything about wealth, power, corruption and Mafia bosses fascinates me. I could elaborate but you know what I mean. But honestly, Gold Coast is a killer of a novel.