Taking a walk in the woods may be more relaxing than fashionable meditation.
People played birdsong from woodland are more likely to become relaxed than those played a meditation app, a study of 600 people found.
The feeling of being immersed in nature is believed to be calming, also reducing rates of stress and anxiety.
Researchers asked people if they felt relaxed or not, then played them 60 seconds of birdsong.
Before this, 30 per cent said they were relaxed and answered quickly enough to show they were strongly convinced of this. But that jumped to 39 per cent of people after hearing the sound of birds.
People played birdsong from woodland are more likely to become relaxed than those played a meditation app, a study of 600 people found
The birdsong appeared to work far better than a meditation app, which, when played to a different group, did not increase the proportion of people who felt relaxed.
The study, done by market research firm Walnut Unlimited in collaboration with the National Trust, also found lower rates of stress and anxiety in people who listened to woodland sounds, although meditation worked better for these measures.
Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, a lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey, said: ‘Listening to the sounds of nature offers an opportunity to feel “away” from everyday stresses and strains.
‘These sounds are also interesting and offer something for the mind to focus on without being overly stimulating.
‘In addition, woodland sounds like songbirds and the rustle of leaves are pleasant and quiet, especially in comparison to many other sounds in urban areas such as traffic.’
Researchers split 600 people into three equal groups for the study, exposing 200 to birdsong and 200 to the meditation app, while leaving the rest alone in silence.
Each group were asked before the one-minute activity if they felt relaxed, stressed or anxious, then asked again afterwards.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF MEDITATION?
Meditation can be traced back to as early as 5000 BC.
It is associated with some philosophies and religions but is practiced as a secular, stress-relieving activity more and more.
A recent study revealed that meditation can reduce one’s risk of heart disease by decreasing risk factors that can lead to the illness.
Specifically, it found that the practices can lower one’s blood pressure and their anxiety and depression levels.
It can also help people quit smoking, which can lead to a fatal heart attack.
Experts are warning that healthy lifestyle changes such as being more physically active are still the surest way to ward off the disease, but adding that meditation can also decrease one’s chances.
The rate of relaxation in people who listened to the meditation app or did nothing did not change.
But the proportion of people who felt relaxed after hearing the sound of birds rose by 30 per cent.
The study found 39 per cent both said they were relaxed and answered fast compared to their speed on previous survey questions.
That indicates that they really did associate the sound of nature with relaxation, so their brain could quickly respond.
However, although the proportion of anxious people fell 19 per cent in those played birdsong, meditation or doing nothing had a larger effect.
The rate of stressed people fell 24 per cent in the woodland sounds group, but by 39 per cent in those listening to a meditation app.
The UK’s leading conservation charity, the Woodland Trust, says walks in the woods, also known as ‘forest bathing’, may be part of the solution for the one in four people at risk of mental health problems. There are also calls for it to be prescribed on the NHS.
A follow-up survey of 2,000 people on behalf of the National Trust found the nation’s favourite woodland sounds include conkers hitting the ground, the squelching of mud, wind whistling through the trees and simply the silence of being in nature.
Birdsong was the top sound, but almost one in five people said they never visited woodland, although there are more than three million hectares of it across the UK.
Dr Ratcliffe said: ‘There is a large body of scientific evidence demonstrating that experience of nature can benefit health and wellbeing, including recovery from everyday psychological stress.
‘Much of this research has focused on visual experiences, but more recent work has shown that the sounds of the outdoors, such as birdsong, wind, and water, can also improve mood and reduce stress. These sounds offer a way to connect with nature no matter where you are.’
Patrick Begg, the National Trust’s outdoors and natural resources director, said: ‘Sometimes a simple walk in woodlands, where you’re surrounded by the echoes of calling birds, and that satisfying crunch of fallen leaves and twigs underfoot, is the perfect remedy for reducing stress.’