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Reading is to brain what exercise is to body

December 1, 2008

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Marion Willey, of Lawrence, finds company in a good read and her dog, Dena, recently in her south Lawrence home. Willey, an avid reader, believes reading helps calm her and benefits her health.

Marion Willey, of Lawrence, finds company in a good read and her dog, Dena, recently in her south Lawrence home. Willey, an avid reader, believes reading helps calm her and benefits her health.

When did you last curl up with a good book to unwind and enjoy some “me” time without feeling guilty? Reading and exercise are often shelved when we’re overburdened and stressed, yet research confirms both activities are vital for physical and mental well-being.

Reading is to the brain what physical exercise is to the body. When both activities are combined, they can help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression and can improve overall health. Reading can also provide rejuvenation, inspiration and nourishment for the soul. It’s easier to serve others if you enjoy regular quiet time to delve into inspirational books and have your personal experience challenged, affirmed and uplifted.

Lawrence psychologist Kris Johnson acknowledges reading’s health benefits.

“Reading’s a good way to relax and explore the world,” she says. “It’s a good way for mothers of young children to temporarily escape life’s everyday stresses and maintain good mental health. People don’t take enough advantage of reading.”

Like many health professionals, Johnson uses books therapeutically.

“Those experiencing emotional challenges can read about someone with similar problems,” she says. “This can provide a good starting point to discuss possible solutions for their challenges.”

In Britain, some doctors prescribe self-help books for conditions such as anxiety, depression and tension-related backaches. The patient collects the “prescription” at the local library.

Maryanne Wolfe, director of Tufts University’s Center for Reading and Language Research and author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” says brains are programmed to see, speak and think but not to read. Reading requires the brain to rearrange its original parts to learn something new. She quotes Marcel Proust, the French novelist: “The heart of the expert reading brain is to think beyond the decoded words to construct thoughts and insights never before held by that person, and in doing so, we are changed forever.”

According to researchers like Wolfe, reading keeps the memory sharp, increases its capacity to be nimble and makes the aging mind hardier.

Marion Willey, 81, an avid reader and member of the Lawrence Ladies Literary League, agrees with the experts.

“Reading’s kept my mind healthy,” she says. “It’s a restful escape to places I’ve never been. I’ve just finished Richard Preston’s ‘The Wild Trees’ about small animals living in huckleberry bushes growing on top of giant Californian redwood trees. Nobody knew of their existence until fairly recently. I’ll never be able to go there physically, but I’ve been able to go in my mind.”

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