A cute kitten or puppy can make your heart melt, but did you know that owning a pet may actually be good for your heart too? It can actually reduce your risk of heart disease.
Of all types of pets, dogs may be your best bet for heart health (sorry cat people!), but simply being a pet owner won't magically change your heart health for the better – there's a little more to it than that.
Read on to discover what the research really says and find out all the reasons why your heart loves your pet in more ways than one.
DOG MAKE YOU MOVE
A major risk factor for heart disease is having low levels of physical activity. Many research studies have found that owning a dog can give you the boost (or wet-nosed nudge) you need to get off the couch and move more.
One Australian study found that dog owners had significantly higher levels of physical activity and walked 40 minutes more per week than those who didn't own a dog.
In fact, the dog owners in this study were 57% more likely to meet the recommended levels of physical activity than those without a furry four-legged friend.
A Canadian study backs up these results, finding that dog owners walk an average of 5 hours a week compared with only 2.75 hours per week for non-dog owners. That's quite a big difference – almost double the time!
The key factor at play, say the Canadian researchers, is the care and responsibility that comes with owning a dog. But is it all down to duty and commitment, or are there other reasons behind this difference in behaviour?
Research from Western Australia looked at people who had recently acquired a dog and found the main driver of change was perhaps deeper than having to do a daily chore.
The researchers found that owning a dog may increase your level of physical activity by changing the way you think and feel about physical activity (such as walking your dog around the block), making you more likely to actually do it. They also found that dogs give their owners the motivation and social support for getting outdoors and getting active.
PETS PROVIDE WEIGHT LOSS SUPPORT
Obesity is another major risk factor for heart disease, and while the research results are mixed on whether dog owners are more likely to be a healthier weight that non-dog owners, there's a good argument to support the link; not only do pets increase your levels of physical activity, pets can also provide their owners with social support – and social support is one of the most powerful predictors of weight loss and behaviour change.
Pets may increase the likelihood of success in weight loss plans or programs by providing both encouragement and motivation. It's also been noted that some pets may actually reduce the barriers that can stop people from exercising or engaging in physical activity in the first place; for example, concerns of neighbourhood safety or lack of confidence.
So not only do pets make us move more, it can also feel like they are cheering us on from the sidelines when we do, and that can make a big difference when it comes to being a healthy weight and having a healthy heart.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
We all know that a pet can be the most loyal best friend, a companion for life and are often considered a member of the family. This connection can be important in combatting loneliness, stress, depression and anxiety, which, as it turns out, are risk factors for heart disease.
Our mental and emotional health matters when it comes to heart health. Pets encourage us to take care of them, which helps us to take better care of ourselves. The research shows that any kind of pet can improve feelings of loneliness and that pet ownership is linked to eating a healthier diet with more vegetables and having more regular mealtimes.
TAKE THE PRESSURE DOWN
Having high blood pressure and unhealthy levels of blood fats puts extra strain on your heart and health, making you more at risk of heart disease. Research has found that pet owners may fare better in these important measures of heart health.
An Australian study of nearly 6000 participants found that those who were pet owners had significantly lower systolic blood pressures (the first number in the blood pressure reading) than non-pet owners, as well as healthier levels of blood fats.
Interestingly, the researchers also noted that the pet owners in this group were significantly more physically active than non-pet owners – which in itself can also lead to healthier blood pressure and blood fats.
THE REAL REASON
Despite the fact that we all want a quick fix (and a cute puppy), going out and buying a dog isn't actually going to reduce your risk of heart disease. Experts agree it's most likely the physical activity that comes with owning the dog that is the main factor at work here.
And guess what? Whether or not you have a pet, there's nothing to stop you from reaching the recommended amounts of weekly physical activity and leading a healthier life – but owning a pet might just make it more fun!
Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health