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 night."
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
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.