How a Canine Companion Can Help the Heart, From the September 2015 Harvard Heart Letter

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Owning and caring for a dog can lead to better heart health. As a group, people with dogs tend to get more exercise and also see reductions in weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.

Nearly half of U.S. households include at least one dog. For most owners, the biggest reward is the unmatched love and devotion dogs can offer. But canine companionship may also have cardiovascular benefits for dog owners, according to the September 2015 Harvard Heart Letter.

“Research shows that people who have a dog are far more likely to get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week,” says Dr. Elizabeth Frates, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the medical editors of the Special Health Report Get Healthy, Get a Dog.

Dogs are the ultimate exercise partners. Unlike a human walking buddy, a dog will never choose to grab a cup of coffee instead of going for a brisk walk, no matter how miserable the weather.

Dog ownership can even encourage physical activity among people who traditionally get less exercise. If someone hasn't been active for a long time, walking a dog can lessen any embarrassment he or she may feel about physical appearance and level of fitness. Being out and about with a dog may also enhance a person’s sense of social connectedness by providing opportunities to meet and interact with other people.

Many studies find that dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-owners. People with dogs appear to have less cardiovascular reactivity when they are mentally stressed, meaning their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly. Researchers attribute this effect to a reduction in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Among older adults in particular, dog ownership seems to confer a sense of well-being.

For people whose living space or work schedule doesn’t accommodate dog ownership, there are other avenues for achieving canine camaraderie. They can offer to take a neighbor’s dog out for a daily jog or volunteer their dog-walking services at a local animal shelter.

Read the full-length article: “Wag more: A tale of healthy living

Also in the September 2015 issue of the Harvard Heart Letter:

  •     The new cholesterol-lowering drugs
  •     Tai chi: A gentle exercise for heart health
  •     Managing a leaky mitral valve

The Harvard Heart Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

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