Puppy Love, Healthy Hearts

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August 21, 2013


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Does stress have you on a short leash? Getting a watchdog may help. Fido, the family pet, can help guard your heart from the ill effects of stress, obesity, cardiovascular disease, according to a recent report from the American Heart Association.  

“There is a substantial body of data that suggests that pet ownership is associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk factors and increased survival in individuals with established cardiovascular disease,”  the AHA reports.  

Scientific studies indicate that pet owners—especially those with dogs—enjoy a number of cardiovascular benefits, including reductions in blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels, according to Khurram Nasir, M.D., research director of Baptist Health’s wellness and prevention program, as well as director of the High Risk Cardiovascular Clinic and senior research scholar for Baptist Cardiac & Vascular Institute

“Having a pet allows you to increase your physical activity. Pets also help blunt our response to stress,” Dr. Nasir says. 

Here’s how: 

Extra exercise: Fido can be your fitness partner. Whether you and your dog play catch or stroll around the neighborhood, dog ownership offers a chance to squeeze extra exercise into the day. In one study reported by the AHA, dog owners walked an average of 300 minutes a week, nearly double the 168 minutes logged by non-owners.

By keeping you company during a walk, the family dog can increase your motivation to exercise and reduce fears about neighborhood safety that might otherwise keep you planted on the couch.

That’s good news, because exercise is the top dog when it comes to conquering or avoiding obesity. Being overweight puts you at greater risk for cancer, stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention.

Pet-friendly living: Studies indicate that social isolation and depression can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, Dr. Nasir says. As a dose of prevention, pets can provide companionship, comfort and stress relief. Additionally, pet owners are likely to connect and develop friendships at dog parks and other pet-friendly locations. 

Stress-busters: The risk of developing cardiovascular disease is increased by chronic exposure to stress and the byproducts of stress: high blood pressure, elevated heart rates and toxic doses of stress hormones. Fortunately, pet ownership can “blunt” our fight-or-flight response to stress, Dr. Nasir says. 

During a study of 240 couples, pet owners (roughly half of the group) had significantly lower resting heart rates and blood pressure levels than the other participants. What’s more, in stressful situations, pet owners had a muted (healthier) response to stress and were able to recover faster, as measured by prompt returns to baseline levels for heart rate and blood pressure. The recovery time was even better when the pets were present.

“Some companies in the U.S. are starting to recognize that people perform better in the presence of their pets,” Dr. Nasir says.

 But before you head out to the animal shelter, Dr. Nasir has a few notes of caution: Owning a pet is not a cure-all.

“People shouldn’t think that by getting a dog they can continue to engage in unhealthy habits, such as smoking and overeating, and remain healthy,” he says.  

But if you’re a pet lover who hasn’t been motivated to get moving or to get a pet, this information may be just what you need to join the pack.

 

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