You make plans to take a walk with a friend, but the weather turns cold or a meeting runs long and the walk is canceled. But your furry friend with four legs and a tale never has an excuse.
Getting regular exercise, whether it’s walking or fetching Frisbees, is just one of many physical health benefits to owning a pet.
Even if you own a dog or cat, and at least one-third of all U.S. households do, you might be surprised to learn how your pet can help keep you away from doctors and pills.
Forget the Treadmill. Get a Dog
That’s the headline on a New York Times article explaining how dogs can get us moving and keep us fit.
The article cites four studies to bolster its claim:
- Michigan State University researchers found that among dog owners who took their pets for regular walks, 60 percent met federal criteria for regular moderate or vigorous exercise. Nearly half of dog walkers exercised an average of 30 minutes a day at least five days a week. By comparison, only about a third of those without dogs got that much regular exercise.
- A West Australian study tracked people’s activity before and after getting a dog. Before getting a dog, men and women walked about 89 minutes a week. After a dog, the weekly walk increased to 130 minutes.
- A California study found that dog owners were about 60 percent more likely to walk for leisure than people who owned a cat or no pet at all. That meant dog owners walked an extra 19 minutes a week compared with people without dogs.
- University of Missouri researchers followed 54 older adults at an assisted-living home. Some walked with another person and others traveled to a local animal shelter, where they were assigned a dog to walk. Walking speed among the dog walkers increased by 28 percent, compared with just 4 percent among the human walkers.
Dr. Rebecca Johnson, lead author of the Missouri study, said that human walkers often complained about the heat and talked each other out of exercise, but not people who were paired with dogs.
“If we’re committed to a dog, it enables us to commit to physical activity ourselves,” said Dr. Johnson, co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound.” The video below tells one man’s story about how a rescue dog helped him to lose weight, reduce medications and turn his life around.
On the flip side, take note if your dog is sedentary and overweight. According to Harvard Medical School, people who are overweight and sedentary tend to have dogs that are overweight and sedentary. “So if you have an unhealthy, overweight dog, that may be a red flag that you’re unhealthy yourself,” the medical school says.
Help for Your Heart
Improved heart health is another potential physical benefit of interacting with animals.
A study funded by the National Institutes of Health looked at 421 adults who had suffered heart attacks. A year later, researchers found that dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
In another study of 240 married couples, pet owners had lower heart rates and blood pressure, whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than those without pets.
For those who have already experienced a heart attack, studies show dog owners have better recovery rates and significantly better survival rates.
Cats have curing qualities too. People studied for 20 years who never owned a cat were 40% more likely to die of a heart attack than those who had.
Researchers also found that cat owners have fewer strokes than people who don't own cats. It's partly due to the effects owning a pet can have on a person's circulation. According to WebMD, researchers speculate that cats may have a more calming effect on their owners than other animals do. The personality of cat owners might also be a factor. Cats often become the focus of their owner's interest, which diverts them from other stressful worries.
Overall, pet owners have a lower risk of dying from any cardiac disease, including heart failure.
Stop the Sniffles
"The old thinking was that if your family had a pet, the children were more likely to become allergic to the pet. And if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided," says researcher Dr. James E. Gern, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
However, a growing number of studies have suggested that kids growing up in a home with animals, whether it's cats, dogs or farm animals, will have less risk of allergies and asthma, Gern tells WebMD.
Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years.