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benefits of reading

5 benefits of reading

If you have a neglected list of must-read books that you never seem to get around to reading, you're not alone. The hectic bustle of life often means that many adults don't make time for books. Yet, the many health benefits of reading books make this a healthy habit you may want to prioritise.

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Why make reading a healthy habit?

For many of us, busy work schedules, hectic home lives, and filled social calendars often take priority over downtime with a good book. In 2020 and 2021, research suggested that only half of UK adults had read at least one book in the previous year. Of these, 35% were identified as heavy readers, completing 10 or more books in this time1.

Whether you easily get through 10 or more books a year, or wish to set a more moderate regular reading goal, there are many benefits of reading.

"Reading a book benefits your physical, mental and spiritual health and those benefits can last a lifetime," says Hansa Pankhania, senior accredited British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) counsellor and published author. "It is never too late to begin taking advantage of the many benefits waiting for you in the pages of a good book."

If you're wondering how to get into reading while balancing a busy lifestyle, consider taking regular short reading breaks throughout your week. If you're really strapped for time, you could even explore short stories or poems. The important thing is to find the material you enjoy.

Here we deep dive into the top five benefits of reading for your health.

1. Relieving stress and depression

"Reading a book forces us to be still, which calms us and takes us out of action mode. When our bodies are at rest, physiological changes take place - our breathing and heart rate slow down, and our blood pressure lowers," explains psychotherapist and BACP member Lindsay George.

"In this sense, reading can be seen as a meditative activity. Ultimately, getting lost in a good book is a great way to relax, reduce stress, and increase our overall wellbeing."

Stress management

When you start reading for enjoyment, your focus is shifted away from things that may be causing you stress. This is true of a lot of leisure activities, but becoming immersed in a plot or narrative and absorbing new information requires a high level of concentration. This makes reading one of the most effective activities for stress relief.

One study found that reading can reduce stress levels by as much as 68%2. This was more effective than other popular hobbies including going for a walk, listening to music, and playing video games. In 2021, a survey by BACP and YouGov uncovered that 43% of the UK population used reading to manage their personal stress over the third national COVID-19 lockdown.


Experts also recognise the effectiveness of reading as therapy - known as bibliotherapy - for mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Fictional works carefully selected by professionals can not only provide an escape from negative thoughts but enable people to connect emotionally with characters and reflect on their own feelings.

"Alongside reading fiction, self-help books can also be an effective therapy for anxiety and depression," adds George. "People with anxiety can get into a negative thinking loop, and often forget who they are and what they enjoy. Self-help books can anchor you back into rational thinking so that you can start to rebuild your self-esteem."

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2. Exercising your brain

Just as physical exercise improves your body's strength and agility, getting into the habit of reading improves your brain function, also called your cognitive function.

Brain activation and plasticity

As you read, you are constantly absorbing new information, from plots and characters in fictional narratives to novel ideas and facts in non-fiction. This brings neural pathways in the brain to life and increases neuroplasticity - the ability to rewire and form new connections and communications between different areas of the brain. Creative hobbies, like painting or playing music, have a similar impact on cognition.

During and after reading, MRI scans demonstrate that this connectivity - the network of signals in your brain - becomes more sophisticated. Reading helps your brain process information both visually and verbally. Many experts also believe that the intensive perceptual training that accompanies reading also enhances imagination, creativity, and visual abilities.

Memory training

Reading new information improves your memory because your brain is constantly making new memories, which involves the creation of new synapses that connect neurons in the brain's nervous system.

In simple terms, this is like a workout for the part of your brain concerned with memory. The more this region is engaged, the stronger your short-term memory and recall capabilities become.

There is evidence that working memories, a form of short-term memory that performs specific functions in the present, are improved by reading during school years3. As an adult in the habit of reading, you can continue to keep exercising and strengthening your memory.

Later-life cognitive decline

As reading is a brain exercise, making time to read may also reduce your risk of mental decline later in life4. This could reduce your risk of developing conditions like dementia or may delay them by around five years5.

3. Learning empathy

When you develop a reading habit, it's possible to form new perspectives that positively impact how you relate to the world around you.

"Reading about people's experiences, cultures, and relationships in books can increase our self-awareness and make us more empathetic towards others," says George.

Research suggests that reading fiction throughout your life, and the extent to which you feel 'transported' by a narrative, can increase your capacity for empathy in real-life situations6. This has been linked to an ability to change yourself, including developing better emotional intelligence and resulting in improved social skills.

Using MRI scans, experts have attributed these changes to increased connectivity in the brain between the regions associated with story comprehension and perspective-taking.

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4. Improving your communication skills

The strong correlation between reading and vocabulary range is heavily researched in school children. Continuing to develop large vocabularies through reading later in life is not only great brain exercise but may be advantageous both professionally and socially.

"A 2019 survey showed that 69% of employers are looking to hire people with soft skills7, like the ability to communicate effectively," says Pankhania.

"Being articulate and well-spoken is of great help in any profession, and knowing that you can speak to significant people with self-confidence can be an enormous boost to your self-esteem.

"Reading books is also vital for learning new languages, as non-native speakers gain exposure to words used in context, which will ameliorate their own speaking and writing fluency."

5. Perfecting your night-time routine

Although reading itself is not proven to make you sleepier, creating a bedtime reading habit is a healthy and useful way of signalling to your body to wind down for sleep: "Reading before bed is a good habit, as it helps us to transition from wakefulness to sleepiness," advises George.

Being busy during the day requires you to be mentally switched on, and the psychological and physiological meditative effects of reading can make it easier to switch off ready for sleep. In fact, 73% of 503 frequent bedtime readers believe they would struggle to fall asleep without reading.

"For best results, you may want to choose a print book rather than reading on a screen, since the light emitted by your device could keep you awake and lead to other unwanted health outcomes," adds Pankhania.

For those with hectic lives who are wondering how to get into reading, this makes bedtime reading a great option.

Further reading

  1. Kantar: Are people still reading physical books?

  2. University of Minnesota: Reading for stress relief.

  3. Peng et al: A meta-analysis on the relation between reading and working memory.

  4. Chang et al: Reading activity prevents long-term decline in cognitive function in older people.

  5. Wilson et al: Cognitive activity and onset age of incident Alzheimer disease dementia.

  6. Stansfield and Bunce: The relationship between empathy and reading fiction: separate roles for cognitive and affective components.

  7. Engage Group: New survey: demand for “uniquely human skills” increases even as technology and automation replace some jobs.

Article History

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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