Dogs can be trained to open doors and provide support during epileptic episodes, but even without those skills, dogs naturally improve the health and well-being of the people who love them. Adopting a dog into your life, or even volunteering to spend time with rescue dogs, opens you up to surprising health benefits.
From mental and emotional well-being to your physical strength and energy, dogs can improve nearly all aspects of what it means to be healthy. Here are a few examples.
1. They Get You Moving
All dogs, even the ones that prefer to be couch potatoes, need regular exercise. They need to burn fat, maintain muscle, and use up stored energy. Running around the yard does part of the job, but you can’t always count on dogs to exercise themselves. They need their humans to initiate activity, and that means dog and owner get to exercise together.
Whether it’s a quick walk around the block, a weekend hike, or a never-ending game of tug, movement is what matters. Having a dog encourages people who would otherwise slip into a sedentary lifestyle to get up and be active. And for people that already enjoy exercising, a dog that can run circles around you is great motivation.
2. They Get You Outside
Whether you have an 80-pound Lab or an 8-pound Chihuahua, exercising your dog is always better when it’s outside. Poor weather can occasionally keep you inside, but dogs aren’t meant to stay indoors all day long. At the very least, they need to be let outside to go to the bathroom, and those field trips into the great outdoors are excellent opportunities for both dog and human to soak up the sun and breathe in fresh air. Vitamin D from sunshine helps stave off mental and physical diseases including depression and heart disease. At the same time, outdoor air quality is often better than the stale air you breathe indoors.
3. They Let You Talk About Your Problems
They probably won’t understand every word you say, but talking to your dog has great mental health benefits. They won’t judge you for the things you say, and they’ll listen to all of your venting and ranting without interruption. When you’re dealing with a difficult life decision or situation, sometimes the best thing you can do is talk it out.
Talking to your dog lets you get everything out in the open so you can work through your problems. You could also talk to yourself, but people often feel more comfortable (and less crazy) when they’re talking to a beloved pet. Talking things out with a dog will unburden your mind and improve your mental health.
4. Petting Them Reduces Stress
There are countless studies out there that prove petting a dog, or simply being around a dog, can reduce stress. While your hands are running through their soft fur, your brain is busy triggering a chemical release of the stress-reducing hormone called oxytocin. At the same time, it reduces the production of the stress hormone called cortisol. Oxytocin is responsible for the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you hug someone you love, and petting a dog gets you to that same wonderful place.
Dogs have found roles in courtrooms, airports, and even college campuses where stressed-out people can best benefit from a dog’s irresistibly soft fur and belly that’s just waiting to be rubbed. As a bonus, less stress in your life means lower blood pressure, and that means better heart health.
5. They Build Immunity
People used to believe that dogs and cats were bad for children because of the risk of developing allergies, but science now proves the opposite is true. A 2004 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that children who grow up with pets are less likely to develop allergies later in life. Being exposed to pet hair and dander during the first year of life effectively reduces a person’s risk of developing allergic sensitization to that particular animal. At the same time, sharing a space with a dog bolsters the immune system in children so they can better fight off illnesses in the future.
6. They Add Structure and Routine to Life
People who live alone, are retired, or suffer from depression find having a dog in their lives offers much-needed structure and routine. Dogs need to be let out to go to the bathroom, they need to be fed and exercised, and they are completely reliant on their owners for survival. Their needs are a reason to get out of bed and get moving every day. Dogs stave off feelings of loneliness, and having a connection with another living being is an essential part of maintaining mental health.
7. They Improve Your Social Life
Some people are outgoing enough that being social is easy, but many others suffer from social anxiety that makes conversing with others and being in crowds an agonizing experience. Having a dog won’t stop your heart from pounding at the thought of going to a party alone, but it will help you connect with others.
An estimated 44% of Americans own a dog. Regardless of what breed they have, almost all dog owners have something in common–they love talking about their dogs. Take your dog to the park, a pet store, or even for a walk through the neighborhood, and you’ll be introduced to a group of fellow dog-loving people to improve your social life and bolster your mental health.
Eat your veggies, get a good night’s sleep, drink plenty of water, and if you really want to improve your health, head to your local shelter and adopt a dog to be part of your family.