How to boost your health by getting out into nature

While you might love the smooth jazz tones of Caro Emerald to unwind, or prefer the rocky vocals of Kings Of Leon to alleviate stress, research suggests that the simple sounds of the forest might have more health benefits in the long run.

The rustling of leaves under your feet, the tweeting of birds overhead, and the melodic sounds of streams and rivers, are all you need if you’re looking for a way to boost wellbeing, according to researchers.

The study, co-led by assistant professor Rachel Buxton from the Institute Of Environmental And Interdisciplinary Sciences at Carleton University, and Dr Amber Pearson of Michigan State University, analysed 18 investigations from around the world that looked into how natural sounds impact our health.

It found that just listening to the sounds of natural landscapes has the power to decrease stress and pain, improve cognitive function, and enhance our mood.

‘Much of my research has focused on the negative impacts of human-caused noise pollution,’ explains Rachel. ‘So, I wanted to understand the opposite – what are the positive impacts of natural sounds?

Also, I’ve always been an avid birder and birdsong always makes me feel refreshed so, more personally, I was interested in the science behind the potential restorative effects of birding.’

In the studies that were analysed, participants listened to recordings of outdoor sounds in a laboratory and, after listening to the sounds of nature, participants reported the positive health benefits. While the sounds of water were most effective, Rachel was happy to discover that bird sounds were best for lowering stress.

‘You can think of it from an evolutionary perspective – humans are highly attuned to signals of danger/safety,’ says Rachel. ‘Hearing is an incredibly important sense – it’s the first to develop in utero. An acoustic environment that is full of natural sounds is a pretty good indicator of safety, allowing us to let our guard down.

‘Whereas an acoustic environment that is empty and silent can indicate something is wrong. This results in heightened surveillance, leading to higher stress and anxiety and there is a huge body of research that shows a variety of negative effects of noise pollution on people in urban environments.’

If participants had these positive outcomes from just listening through headphones, imagine the impact it could have from totally immersing yourself in a natural environment.

And it doesn’t have to be a forest. Rachel says that you can reap the benefits by simply sitting in your garden, or a local park. ‘One interesting finding from looking at the body of research was that some studies found that natural sounds, even when paired with noise – e.g. vehicle noise – still generated better health outcomes than just vehicle noise.

‘This is good news for city dwellers – seeking out natural sounds will have health benefits even if you can’t escape the sounds of the city.

‘Being mindful of natural sounds can enhance time spent outside, so focus on the sounds of leaves rustling in the wind, rivers, birds etc when you’re outside, or you can just listen to these sounds from an open window.

‘If you really can’t get outside, maybe for Covid reasons, listening to natural sounds on headphones can also work. And remember, the benefits of nature aren’t limited to sound – seeing nature also has well-known benefits, as does smelling nature.’

Why does nature have such a restorative effect?

According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports in March 2017, the sounds of nature alter our brain’s connections, reducing our body’s natural fight-or-flight reaction and Forest Research – the research agency of the Forestry Commission and Great Britain’s principal organisation for forestry and tree-related research – has data to add to this.

It found that visits to any outdoor greenspace of 30 minutes or more per week have been associated with a seven per cent reduction in depression in the population.

The report, funded by the Forestry Commission, Scottish Forestry and the Welsh Government, and published in December 2021, is the first time the health and wellbeing benefits of the UK’s woodlands have been quantified.

It found that visits to UK woodlands boosts mental health and is estimated to save £185million in treatment costs annually. ‘These figures are based on evidence of the reduced incidence of depression and anxiety resulting from regular visits to woodlands,’ says Sir William Worsley, Forestry Commission Chair.

‘This report demonstrates just how vital it is to invest in healthy trees and woodlands. It makes medical sense, because it will mean better health for all: economic sense, by saving society millions of pounds and it makes environmental sense, helping us to tackle the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.’

The Government has committed to trebling tree planting rates by the end of this Parliament, helping to benefit wildlife, the environment and people’s wellbeing in the long term. However, as of June it had yet to hit 50% of this target.

‘Nature really is the best medicine,’ adds Rachel. ‘We all can attest to how beautiful natural sounds are and how remarkable [it is] that these sounds are also good for our health.

‘We just need to keep in mind that this is a reciprocal relationship and while nature protects our health, we have a responsibility to protect the health of the natural environment in return.’

Picnic season is upon us and this great British tradition might just be the perfect way to restore your wellbeing.

Why not pack up, pitch up and enjoy the sounds of your surrounding area while you indulge in a glass of fizz and some nibbles. Below are Forestry England’s top spots…

Lodge Pond Trail, Alice Holt Forest, Hampshire

Navigate the stunning woodland and pine forest to reach the peace and tranquillity of the pond.

Settle down at one of the tables and enjoy the sights and sounds of the surroundings and its varied wildlife.

Whinlatter Forest, Cumbria

This is England’s only mountain forest offering winding paths and local wildlife, including the infamous red squirrel.

There are 14miles of road suitable for walkers and cyclists, while the Wildplay project is a 600metre-long trail with nine play areas designed for children. There are several viewpoints in the forest where you can rest for a while and take everything in.

Mortimer Forest, Herefordshire/Shropshire

With three car parks there’s an abundance of sights and sounds on offer.

If you come at the right time, you might catch a glimpse of the goshawk hunting, or the unique long-haired fallow deer (this is the only place in the world where they are found), while inside the forest in the open spaces, you could be lucky enough to see butterflies and reptiles basking the sun.

Staindale Lake, Dalby Forest, North Yorkshire

The lakeside walk is an easily accessible half-mile trail, with plenty to enjoy along the way.

Resident birdlife includes mallard and tufted ducks, as well as Canada geese and the odd heron. The forest is a working commercial forest and every 40 to 60 years, trees are cut down and made into paper, fence posts, gates etc, or used in construction. Trees are then replanted.

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