Get the leash! Walking a dog is not only good exercise. It’s also great therapy
, based on a raft of recent studies. Below are six psychological benefits of taking Fido for a stroll.
Boosting exercise motivation
You know how some people are better about making doctor’s appointments or cooking healthy meals for a loved one than for themselves? By the same token, some find that going for regular walks is easier when done for the sake of a four-legged friend. If you’re the type of person who tends to be highly conscientious and focused on others, your dog’s need for exercise may help propel you out the door day after day, in fair weather and foul.
If you’re a dog lover, spending time with your pet can be a powerful antidote to stress. Research has shown that being around a dog can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and dampen other physiological stress responses. The effect is so strong that service dogs are sometimes used to help war veterans manage PTSD. Know what else is a proven stress reliever? Physical activity. When you combine these two things in dog walking, you’ve got a double-strength stress remedy.
Guarding your brain
Dog owners who walk their dogs get more total physical activity, on average, than those who don’t. Plus, they reap other rewards, such as less stress, which may also improve their health. So it’s no surprise that researchers have found a link between having a canine pal and possessing a healthier circulatory system. In 2013, the American Heart Association issued a scientific statement, which says: “Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with decreased [cardiovascular disease] risk.” That includes a lower risk for stroke, a leading cause of disabling brain injury.
Connecting with nature
When you walk a dog, you’re bound to go outdoors, and you may start spending more time in parks and on trails. Studies show that getting out into nature can help restore your attention when it starts to flag. It can also increase your sense of well-being, especially if you’re attuned to the natural beauty around you.
If your dog likes to walk, you can count on always having an enthusiastic walking buddy. That companionship not only makes walking more enjoyable. It may also reduce loneliness when your human relationships aren’t going so well. In one clever study, college students were asked to write about a time when they felt excluded—an activity designed to make them feel rejected. Then they were asked to write about their favorite pet, write about their best friend or draw a map of campus. Thinking about a pet was just as effective as thinking about a friend for staving off feelings of rejection.
Building community spirit
Dog walking is a great excuse to explore your community and strike up conversations with your neighbors. In a study of more than 800 people over 50, those who walked a dog at least four times per week were more likely to report feeling a strong sense of community, compared to people who didn’t own a dog. They were also more likely to spend at least 150 minutes per week walking in their neighborhood.
In short, by taking your dog for a walk, you may be boosting your own health and happiness. Let the heeling begin!
Linda Wasmer Andrews, a health and psychology writer, is walked daily by her dog. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.