Furry Friends Foster Fitness

LEAN_iHeartPets-image-headerby Sarah Schmidt

Dozens of scientific studies conducted over the past decade show that pets are more than just furry friends; they actually add years onto the life expectancy of their owners. In addition, pets significantly improve their owners’ quality of life and contribute to their overall health in surprising ways. For example, one study showed that just a few minutes of petting your dog releases endorphins that lower your blood pressure by as much as 10 points.

The science is so convincing that the American Heart Association made headlines recently when it released a statement saying that owning a pet — particularly a dog — could help lower your risk of heart disease. “Not surprisingly, dog owners who walk their dogs are more likely to achieve the recommended level of physical activity than dog owners who do not walk their dogs,” the AHA said, citing one study of 5,200 Japanese dog owners who were found to be 54 percent more likely than non-dog owners to get regular, sustained periods of exercise.

LEAN-FurryFriends-image2“Pets also play a role in providing social support to their owners, which is an important factor in helping you stick with a new habit or adopting a new healthy behavior,” the AHA said. Some data even suggested a relationship between pet ownership and lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, leading the AHA to note that pet owners who suffered from cardiovascular disease were more likely than non-pet owners to survive heart attacks.

The data proves what Melissa Cox, owner and founder of the Huntsville-based home boarding facility Petz Carlton, sees in practice every day. With Petz Carlton’s five locations across north Alabama, Cox works with dozens of pet owners weekly. She says pets improve both the physical and mental health of their owners.

“They give people, who are able, a reason to be physically active; they provide companionship and unconditional love that’s good for the mind and soul. They can even be conversation icebreakers and help people develop relationships with one another,” Cox said.

Cox should know. Her clients often call her “the dog whisperer” because she has such a remarkable connection with dogs. It comes naturally as the daughter of R.F. Dickey, a three time world champion breeder and handler. Cox has been raising and training dogs all her life.

“I’ve seen people who struggle with OCD or depression handle their symptoms better from owning a pet,” Cox said. When one of her clients was diagnosed with ALS last year, his wife adopted a retired Corgi show dog as a surprise. The relationship has been nothing short of inspiring, Cox said.

“She [the Corgi] knows when he is feeling down and will offer him her favorite toy. She licks his hands because she’s learned that he no longer has full use of them; she alerts his wife when he needs help getting out of his chair or bed,” Cox explained.

LEAN-FurryFriends-grouppic1That kind of unconditional love is exactly what the studies cited by the AHA found so beneficial to pet owners. Connecting with a pet, just like any enjoyable activity, lowers stress levels. Less stress, reduced anxiety and lower blood pressure all contribute to improved heart health. Cox offers these tips on how best to connect with your dog for maximum physical and mental benefits.

Play like a kid: Run around in the yard; throw a ball; play chase. Dogs remind us to live in the moment and enjoy life to the fullest.

Walk or jog: Walking of course is great exercise, but your dog needs it too. Get out and explore your neighborhood. Check out a dog park. Go hiking. Sporting dogs appreciate keeping up with you on a trail.

Swim: Most dogs love water, so a day at the lake can be fun for you and your dog.

Advance to complex: Agility trials with multiple obstacles might be a good option if you have an active dog. Agility courses require you to jog along beside your dog and give hand cues. It’s a good cardio workout!

Whatever you do, Cox says the bond pet owners make with their pets produces unconditional love like none other. “No matter what we’re wearing or what we look like, no matter how much money we have or the car we drive, our dogs provide a sense of acceptance that is judgement-free,” she said.