Your dog might be your heart's best friend, if a new study is any indication.
Researchers found that compared with people who had no pets, dog owners tended to have fewer risk factors for heart disease: They got more exercise, and had healthier diets and lower blood sugar levels.
Even compared with other pet owners, they were doing better with diet and exercise.
The study of nearly 1 800 Czech adults is not the first to suggest our canine friends can do our hearts good. In fact, in 2013 the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a scientific statement saying that dog ownership is likely linked to a lower risk of heart disease.
That was largely based on evidence that people with dogs are more physically active. The new findings suggest the benefit might extend to diet and blood sugar levels.
It's easy to see how having a dog could get people moving, according to senior researcher Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez.
And it's possible that dog owners' lower blood sugar levels were related to their exercise habits, said Lopez-Jimenez, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
It's less obvious, though, why dog ownership would encourage a healthier diet. One possibility is that the two are not directly related, he said.
Companionship and emotional support
On the other hand, past research has shown that dogs do more than demand walks and get us moving: They offer companionship and emotional support, according to Lopez-Jimenez.
"They can decrease your feelings of loneliness, and give you a sense of purpose," he said. "You have someone to look after."
And that, he speculated, might encourage people to take better care of themselves.
Dr. Glenn Levine, a volunteer medical expert with the AHA, was lead author of its statement on pets and heart health. He said that, overall, there is "reasonably good data" that adopting a dog can increase people's physical activity levels.
"That's the strongest and most direct (cardiovascular) benefit," said Levine, who is also a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
He agreed, though, that pets might support heart health in less-direct ways, too. "There may be other benefits as well – including reduced stress, greater companionship and happiness, and other factors that could lead people to take better care of themselves."
Ideal exercise recommendations
For the study, the researchers used data from a health survey of 1 769 Czech adults, aged 25 to 64.
Overall, more than two-thirds of dog owners (67%) met the "ideal" AHA recommendations for exercise. That means 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, each week – along with muscle strengthening exercises a couple of days per week.
In contrast, only 48% of people without pets met that ideal, as did 55% of other pet owners, the findings showed.
When it came to diet, few people met the AHA ideal, which includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, fibre-rich grains, fish and lean meat. But dog owners were doing better than others: Fewer than 7% scored in the "poor" range for diet, versus 16% of people without pets, and 13% of other pet owners.
Dog owners did, however, fall short in one heart-health measure: Their smoking rates were highest.
It's not clear why, according to Lopez-Jimenez – and it might not hold true in other countries, such as the United States. In general, smoking is more common in Eastern Europe.
The bottom line, according to Levine, is that people might enjoy health benefits from having a canine companion. But the AHA does not advocate adopting a dog for that purpose.
"The primary purpose of adopting or rescuing a dog should be to give the dog a loving and caring home," Levine said. "The health benefits that may come from this are a bonus."
The findings were published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes.
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