Hiking with your headphones on is all fine and good, but new research suggests that blocking out the birdsong might be doing your health a disservice. According to a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, birding — not just walking or hiking — might be the secret to reducing stress, alleviating depression and even living longer.
The study monitored nearly 1,300 U.K. residents over a three-year span. During that time, the researchers used an app to record participants’ bird encounters and various mental health markers before, during and after those encounters. Some of these encounters were hours-long birding sessions. Others were laid-back outings conducted during walks or during family camping trips.
When the researchers crunched the numbers, they found that people who spent time around birds had improved mental health outcomes. That included reduced stress and relief from symptoms of depression — both while birding and afterward. These results remained significant even when researchers corrected for age, gender, and socioeconomic status. They also held true whether or not the participants were birdwatching while indoors or outdoors.
This latter finding offers some evidence that it’s not just the physical action of hiking that’s good for you, but that there’s something special about birds that has the ability to reduce stress or otherwise spark awe and joy. Some experts theorize that it might be the sound of birds that does it for us. One 2018 study suggests that being near bird song can reduce stress and mental fatigue.
That said, the U.K. study states that “the positive effect of seeing or hearing birds on mental wellbeing was more pronounced when individuals were outdoors.” This aligns with other scientific research which has found that moving slowly and intentionally through green spaces may be able to help boost your immune system as well as other aspects of your physical and mental health. Birding might be one way of doing that without having to think about it.
So, if you’re addicted to hiking with headphones blaring, all the power to you. But if you’re looking to slow down and get a little extra mental health boost from your exercise, consider picking up a pair of binoculars or finding a group birding event near you.