Take a hike! Nature sounds can decrease pain, lower stress, and improve your mental health

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OTTAWA — Here’s one more reason to spend more time outdoors. The sounds of nature can decrease pain, lower stress, improve mood and enhance cognitive performance, according to a new study.

A springtime stroll through nature while enjoying the sounds of birdsong and the patter of rain works wonders for your health, researchers claim. It means those turning to the great outdoors for exercise during the pandemic have not only been boosting their physical health but their mental health too.

Scientists say the sounds of water boost positive emotions and health outcomes, while bird sounds combat stress. The new study, which uses recordings from 251 sites across 66 US national parks, reveals the beautiful sounds come with a slew of striking health benefits.

“In so many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the importance of nature for human health,” says lead study author Dr. Rachel Buxton, a researcher at Carleton University, in a statement. “As traffic has declined during quarantine, many people have connected with soundscapes in a whole new way, noticing the relaxing sounds of birds singing just outside their window. How remarkable that these sounds are also good for our health.”

Buxton also suggests people close their eyes and be mindful of the sounds they hear when visiting a favorite park.

“These sounds are beautiful and good for our health. They deserve our protection,” she adds.

In the study, dozens of students at Colorado State University (CSU) identified different types of sounds in recordings. It comes from more than a decade of collaboration between CSU and the National Park Service.

The team says the sounds of water were most effective at improving positive emotions and health outcomes. Bird sounds combat stress and annoyance.

“The findings highlight that in contrast to the harmful health effects of noise, natural sounds may actually bolster mental health,” says lead study author Dr Amber Pearson, an associate professor at Michigan State University. “Most of the existing evidence we found is from lab or hospital settings. There is a clear need for more research on natural sounds in our everyday lives and how these soundscapes affect health.”

National parks offer some of the most pristine soundscapes and the National Park Service increasingly recognizes natural sounds in policy. Although the team found health-bolstering sites do exist in parks full of natural sounds and little interference from noise, more popular parks are more likely to be inundated with noise.

That means that many park visitors are not reaping the health benefits found in more quiet spaces.

“Park sites near urban areas with higher levels of visitation represent important targets for soundscape conservation to bolster health for visitors,” says co-author Kurt Fristrup, a scientist at the National Park Service. “Nature-based health interventions are increasingly common in parks and incorporating explicit consideration of the acoustic environment is an opportunity to enhance health outcomes for people.”

Many innovative programs exist to increase people’s appreciation of acoustic environments, from sound walks and trips where the main purpose is listening, to quiet zones where soundscapes are enhanced by asking visitors to visit quietly. Paired with noise management, these methods expose visitors to more natural sounds and their health benefits.

“Our results contribute to the growing conversation about the conservation and accessibility of parks and other outdoors environments,” notes co-author Claudia Allou, a recent graduate at Michigan State.

Professor George Wittemyer, co-author at CSU, says the research highlights an under-recognized benefit nature and its conservation can bring to people. “The positive health impacts and stress reduction benefits of nature are more salient than ever to help offset the concerning increase in anxiety and mental health issues,” he adds.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.