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A.J. Jacobs on Why Reading Books Can Save Your Life

Jacobs1[Our thanks to human lab rat A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy, for this exclusive guest post.]

In my new book Drop Dead Healthy, I try to become the healthiest person alive. In doing so, I examine hundreds of activities to determine if they are healthy.

Is meditation healthy? Yes. Petting dogs? Yes, because it lowers the blood pressure. Sitting? Definitely not. Going to a noisy restaurant? No. Taking naps? Thank God yes.

One of the few activities I didn’t discuss: Reading. Is reading healthy? Or will it slowly murder you?

No doubt I’m a bit biased, but I’ve come to the conclusion that overall, books are, in fact, good for your health.

Before I get to the science, let’s take a look at history. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt was giving a speech in Milwaukee, when a protestor shot him point-blank in the chest. TR only suffered a flesh wound. Why? The bullet was slowed by his reading glasses case and the manuscript of the speech itself. So there you go. Reading material can save lives.

JacobsLikewise, the Antarctic Explorer Ernest Shackleton brought the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica with him to Antarctica. He ended up burning the volumes to keep from freezing. Again, books help you cheat death.

Now to the studies. Your parents may have warned you not to read in dim light because it’ll ruin your eyesight. Fortunately, this is a myth. In fact, it’s one of the seven most common myths that even doctors fall for, according to a report in the British Medical Journal. (Another is that people should drink at least eight glasses of water a day). As Tara Parker Pope put it in the New York Times, “Bad lighting makes it hard to focus, makes you blink less and leads to dry eyes, particularly if you’re squinting. So reading in dim light is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t cause permanent damage.” So don’t worry about your eyes.

Your parents also probably told you to read because it’s good for your brain. This time they were right – and recent neuroscience backs them up. Annie Murphy Paul wrote a great article in the New York Times recently about how reading activates a buffet of brain areas. For instance, when you read about smells, the odor-related part of your brain lights up. It’s a full-skull experience.

Perhaps even more impressive: reading makes us better human beings. As Paul writes, it “hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

Finally, there’s reading’s effect on our waistline. First, the unfortunate news. More and more research shows that sitting is bad for you. Really bad. Like a Paula Deen bacon doughnut bad. It significantly increases your chances of heart disease and slows your metabolism.

This is why, for my book, I ignored the siren call of my chair and did a lot of reading standing up. Reading on your feet burns about 34 more calories per hour than reading while sitting. Eventually, I took it further. I bought a treadmill, converted it into a desk, and did all my reading and writing while walking. It took me about a thousand miles to write the book.  

Now I realize that not everybody will switch to vertical reading. Which is why I recommend fidgeting. Fidgeting – or, as scientists call it, “incidental physical activity” – is actually quite healthy. Studies show that it can burn up to 250 calories a day. So go ahead and read, just try bouncing your leg or wiggling in your seat while you do it.

>See all of A.J. Jacobs' books

>Watch a video of Jacobs discussing Drop Dead Healthy


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Good article! The spirit of sharing is really impressive, and I want to share this article to my friends!

También leer mi Biblia año que vivimos. Sigue escribiendo! Por cierto, ya me has convencido para desempolvar la cinta de correr y volver a - dos días seguidos ahora, casi un récord!!

Love your books and this one is on my list, too!!

Hilarious AND true. Can't get much better than that.

As a lifelong leg jiggler I can attest to two things: it will annoy a large number of non-jigglers and sadly it won't be enough on its own to keep you at peak fitness levels.

I know lots of people who tap their feet or jiggle their leg. Maybe it's good for them, but it's really irritating if you're sitting next to them and the floor or seat is vibrating...

I'm about halfway through your book; informative, and so entertaining. Is your wife really that snarky? Not an insult -- it's my favorite expression of humor. Also read My Year of Living Biblically. Keep writing! Btw, you've already persuaded me to dust off the treadmill and get back on -- two days in a row now, almost a record!

The thing you're forgetting is that if you're sufficiently engrossed in a book, you will forget about food and several kinds of hunger and thirst. It happened to Bastian Baltasar Bux and can happen to all of us.

Well, I have heard we adult Americans do not get enough rest, this is why I read in a horizontal position. This way I feed my brain and rest my body at the same time. Next time, I will try to tap my foot too.

Love your books, So glad I found your blog.

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