The holidays will be here before we know it, and although they bring much joy and love, there can be some stress and anxiety as well. Couple that with busy schedules and an influx of deliciously unhealthy foods and it’s easy to see why most of us take a health hit in the fall and winter. Fortunately, combatting these holiday season side effects can be as easy as spending a bit more time relaxing with our pets.
The health benefits of pets are not just anecdotal––science agrees. That’s why more and more senior homes are allowing for animal companions and why therapy pets are such an important part of healing for many people. Our pets play a valuable role in keeping us healthy both mentally and physically, and relief is often just a cuddle away.
The healing power of touch
You know that feel-good sensation you get from a massage or a facial? That’s due to non-noxious sensory stimulation—a fancy way of saying positive physical interaction. This type of stimuli increases the release of oxytocin in the brain, which in turn decreases levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and decreases heart rate. In a 2011 Swedish study titled Short- Term Interaction Between Dogs and Their Owners, researchers found that the same positive brain changes happen when we touch our pets. The boost of feel-good hormones makes us happy and relaxed, while the decrease in cortisol and heart rate diminishes our sympathetic response to stress and decreases anxiety. It works both ways––dogs in the study experiences an increase in oxytocin levels as well. Who know so much good could come from simply petting our furry friends?
Petting off the pounds
Okay, scratching our cat’s ears may not burn that many calories, but our pets do help us maintain healthy weights, especially during the colder months when the temptation to sit inside all day can start to take over. A 2013 study on pet ownership and cardiovascular risk by the American Heart Association revealed the significant impact pets have on our physical health. Individuals with dogs are half as likely to be overweight, says the study, and those who walk their dogs regularly are 60 percent less likely to be overweight. The study also noted that pets help lower our blood pressure, sometimes even better than medications.
On top of encouraging us to get up and move, pets give us motivation and reduce perceived barriers (like chilly temps and snow) that hinder exercise. So bundle up, break out the paw wax, and get moving—your dog and your waistline will thank you for it.
The warmth of a best friend
When we’re scared, stressed, or just plain old worn out, our pets are there to nuzzle and calm us down. Research shows that animals provide us with social support, which buffers stress, relaxes us, and makes us better able to handle whatever life throws our way. Pets are always happy to share our joy and love us unconditionally. Humans with furry best friends have better relationships and higher self-esteem. They also tend to be more social—few things can unite us like a love and appreciation for animals.
As thanksgiving rolls around, don’t forget to show a little bit of extra thanks for your pet and for all the ways they make your body and mind healthier.