Our pets are often the first thing we see when we wake up. They are there at the door to excitedly greet us when we get home, and send us off to sleep with glorious hugs and kisses. In short, these wonderful companions are a unique and special part of our lives. They are always there when we need love and affection.
Our lives are richer for loving our pets and sharing that love with others. Recent research suggests something even more profound: pets don’t just improve our lives, they also improve us. They help us to feel better, which helps us to make healthier choices, and that can lead to weight loss.
In a pet’s paws, we become:
A pet can foster hope during tough times. In one experiment, when study participants experienced the sting of social rejection and then were asked to think about their pets, their spirits lifted. When we are at our worst, it’s often because we feel helpless. Animal companions remind us of our ability to make a positive impact on the life of another- and that’s therapeutic. The unconditional acceptance of a pet can mediate the corrosive effects of stress over time. It can inoculate us by providing the reserve needed for emotional resilience. The better we feel the less we overeat, binge eat or crave comfort high calorie foods.
Merely petting a dog or cat for 15 minutes lowers the stress hormone cortisol and causes the brain to release the calming hormone oxytocin. One study found that pets are similarly influenced by the oxytocin system, so quality time together is actually a mutually beneficial, and healthy, social interaction. Anyone with a good friend knows that just being there for someone can make all the difference when we’re going through a difficult time. This is just as true with our animal friends as with our human ones.
Scientists suspect that one element of the obesity epidemic is that the brains of obese people respond differently to images of delicious, calorically dense foods. Obese individuals’ brains seem to light up at the sight of donuts, pizza, and other calorie bombs, even when are no longer hungry. One of the key ways oxytocin works in limiting the amount of food that we eat is that it speeds up the satiety process, or reaching fullness. Then, oxytocin works through brain areas that are associated with the pleasure of eating, and it decreases our eating for pleasure.
In this time of incredible stress from all areas of our lives, pets may truly be the best medicine. Next time you feel the urge to binge or eat out of stress pick up your pet instead.
Sounds weird, but it works, try this- make eye contact and match your breathing rate to your pet’s. Feel his or her heartbeat as you talk about your problems, fears, and anxieties. Studies show this technique can not only decrease stress but also help us to be more open with others. A large Australian survey found that pets serve as a social lubricant, with 74% of pet owners saying they rarely or never find it hard to meet and get to know people. Talk to anyone who loves a dog park and they’ll tell you the same thing. This is due to the release of oxytocin and endorphins- our bodies feel good hormones that act similarly to an opioid and the suppression of stress related cortisol production.
Whether it’s chasing the cat, playing catch or walking the dog, our pets encourage us to stay active. But if you want to lose weight and you’re looking for some extra motivation and inspiration, there’s one very special friend you can always call on for help – your dog! Our canine companions can provide the support and encouragement we need to shed the excess weight and get back into that favorite pair of jeans. Why spend half an hour slogging away on a treadmill when you could be out and about exploring the local neighborhood. Even if it’s just playing in the backyard, tug of war in the house, playing fetch, or just dragging you this way and that to explore every new sight and smell, they help raise our heart rates without even trying. And they are wonderful motivators. We all have those days when the idea of getting any form of exercise seems like the hardest thing in the world to accomplish. The winter months, filled with cold and miserable weather don’t help, but there’s nothing like your four-legged workout buddy to provide the motivation and encouragement you need to get it done. If the mere mention of the word “walk” sends your dog into a frenzy of tail-wagging excitement, you know exactly what I mean.
Studies show that dog owners on average walk 22 minutes more per day than non-dog owners and are 34% more likely to fit in 150 minutes of walking per week than non-dog owners. This was also true for teenagers from dog-owning families. They get about 15 more minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity than teens who don’t own pets. So the entire family benefits. Walking an overweight dog also helps both the animals and their owners shed unwanted pounds. Researchers found that dogs provided support in similar ways to a human exercise buddy, but with greater consistency and without any negative influence. And it got results- owners usually walked 20 minutes, five days a week, losing an average of 14.4 pounds in a year, without changing their diets.
There’s no question our companions help reduce stress, combat depression and anxiety, and even increase our social connections. And while your state of mind may not directly influence weight loss, being in the right headspace to get active, stick to your diet, and deal with any potential setbacks along the way may make all the difference.
Establishing a routine is a great place to start. Pets love routine, whether it’s feeding, grooming or playing. By incorporating regular activities into your day you’ll both look forward to and anticipate the time together.
Walking is an ideal way to start shedding those excess pounds. And if it’s a cat? I have a friend who puts her sweetheart in a stroller so they can both enjoy the benefits of fresh air, mental stimulation and one-on-one time. Or try stretching with your cat. They are amazing at moving all parts to get the kinks out. Follow suit and you will too with the added benefit of exercising without even trying. Tucson is an amazingly pet friendly city. Look into all the ways you can safely take your furry friend wherever you go or meet up with like minded owners. Just make sure to stay safe, even outdoors.
Finally, remember to keep it fun. There are so many ways other than a walk to give you and your pooch exercise. Try playing a fetching game, hiking, or even setting up an exercise circuit in your local park or back yard. Losing weight doesn’t have to be a chore, get creative and mix things up whenever you can. Pets are a wonderful weapon in the fight against weight loss, so why not get active with your furry friend? Not only will you feel better about yourself and have so much more energy, but you’ll get to spend a whole lot of quality time with them along the way.