From childhood throughout our entire adult life and elderly years, owning a pet gives us a a significant health boost that lasts a lifetime.
Here’s what the medical literature has to say about why caring for an animal just might be one of the best things you can do to protect your health over a lifetime.
You’ve probably heard that exposure to dirt in childhood is an essential part of boosting immunity and decreasing future allergies… but did you know the same is true for animals?
Early exposure to dogs and farm animals (during the first year of life) statistically significantly decreased the development of asthma in children 5+ years later.
Published on November 2, 2015 in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that exposure to animals decreases future development of asthma, a very important finding because the worldwide incidence of childhood asthma is steadily increasing.
Looking at data from over 1 million children born in Sweden from 2001 to 2010, researchers followed children from birth through the first decade of life, tracking their early childhood exposure (or non-exposure) to dogs and farm animals as well as their subsequent asthma diagnosis and treatment.
They found that having a dog as a pet during the first year of childhood reduced the incidence of asthma diagnosis by 10% by the time the children were 3 years old and up to 13% by 7 years old.
They also found that living on a farm went even further… decreasing the childhood rate of asthma by the time the children were 7 years old by over 52%!
Living on a farm with animals in early childhood (as opposed to simply visiting a farm but not owning any of your own animals) slashed the rate of asthma more than in HALF.
Another study showed that children who lived in homes with pets had less colds and ear infections during their first year of life than children from pet-free households.
This is important information for parents to be aware of, so that they can understand the appropriateness of having their children around animals and pets and that the timing of this is important — during the first year of life.
And well beyond the medicinal benefits of animal exposure in early childhood, having pets:
- gives children a very healthy exposure to unconditional love
- provides stability and continuity during times of unavoidable stress in the child’s life (such as during a move to a new home, entering a new school, or a change in the family dynamics such as a death or divorce)
- and gives a framework to talk about holistic and important topics such as death (as inevitably pets have a shorter life span than humans and often the death of a pet is a very healthy introduction to speaking about death before it pertains to a human family member, such as the loss of a grandparent.)
Loving and caring for a special pet is a priceless, priceless gift during childhood.
My kids saw baby guinea pigs and rabbits being born, nurtured just-hatched baby chicks, held special pets as they grew old and died in their arms, hand bottle fed a baby cockatiel and helped house train all their puppies!
I have found that not only are animals good for the body from a medical perspective by decreasing asthmatic responses and infections in the body during childhood, but also getting children up, outdoors, and active.
Sitting for extended periods of time (like in a school setting!) is unfortunately the worst thing you can do for your body… so having a pet that gets children up and active, such as walking a dog daily, is one of the best things you can do to encourage a long healthy life habit in your child.
This goes against the current model of our school system, which would have your child remain quietly seated from roughly 8 AM to 3 PM on a daily basis.
It’s hard to justify the sedentary “sit still at your desk with only a half hour for lunch and recess” parameter of traditional school any longer… even medicating children so that they will sit still… when many medical studies have proven that sitting still is one one of the biggest threats to our life span (as we will discuss next!)
Prolonged sitting has a profoundly negative impact on cancer risk, sleep quality, and diabetes risk over a lifetime.
And this is not only true for children, but adults as well. Let’s take a look:
Walking a dog every day is so healing, so healthy, that it is as effective in cancer recovery as chemotherapy!
Published on Jan 13, 2013 in the Journal Of Clinical Oncology, researchers followed 2,300 colorectal cancer patients and measured their activity level before and after cancer diagnosis.
The more active the patients were, the better their long-term outcome. Even patients that were doing no physical activity prior to diagnosis… if they began increasing their activity level after diagnosis and during recovery, their outcomes were improved as well.
Active colorectal cancer patients had a 0.58 risk reduction — this is a decrease in mortality rates by almost HALF! — and those who were not active had an increased rate of mortality (death)…. a 1.36 risk increase.
These results suggest that being active has a greater impact on cancer prognosis than chemotherapy!
How active do you need to be to show the protective and healing benefits?
Turns out, not very active. It is way more important to just be up and walking around, to decrease sedentary time, then it is to exercise strenuously. The amount of activity that triggered this protective benefit was only the equivalent of 20 minutes of walking a day.
Pets are the perfect motivator.
Just the equivalent of walking for 20 minutes each day, or about 150 minutes of walking a week, made all the difference in the world — literally saving lives and modifying mortality rates significantly.
Recently released in 2015 at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, the first meta-analysis looking at the effects of walking on sleep in cancer patients revealed that walking improved sleep in all different types of cancers studied.
Sleep disorders are very common during cancer treatment and recovery with many patients reporting daily sleep disturbances which in turn affect physical function, healing, mood, energy levels, and quality of life.
Although it is well know that exercise has been shown to improve sleep due to boosted immune response, core body temperature regulation, autonomic function, enhanced endocrine function, and mood, these parameters have never before been studied on such a wide scale specifically in cancer patients before.
Looking at 9 different randomized, controlled trials, walking was found to improve sleep equally in all different types of cancers followed in the study (including breast cancer.) And, important to note, walking significantly helped sleep no matter what stage of cancer the participants were in — the effect did not differ among early vs. late stage cancers.
With walking being such an accessible, low cost, and holistic approach for supporting better sleep in cancer patients, walking should be part of the healing Rx for ANY cancer patient wishing to optimize their time spent in restorative, healing sleep.
All it takes, to improve cancer outcome (and decrease your cardiovascular and diabetic risk too, as we will talk about next) is to simply decrease the amount of time you spend sitting and increase the amount of time you spend walking. And that’s where a beloved pet or farm animal comes in.
Turns out adopting a dog and taking it on a few short walks a day is as good a cancer treatment plan as anything else we have to offer right now.
The same is true for diabetes prevention.
Published on February 2016 in Diabetologia, researchers looked at whether sedentary time, breaks in sedentary time, and/or total physical activity was associated with cardiometabolic risk factors in 878 participants.
The results showed length of time spent sedentary actually had the biggest impact on blood glucose levels. Revealing that time spent in sedentary behavior (sitting or lying down) actually impacts your diabetes risk more than moderate to vigorous physical activity does.
The bottom line?
Time spent sedentary is the biggest risk factor of cardiometabolic health we know of.
So folks who are at high risk for type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular events or metabolic syndrome should have a goal of being up and about more throughout the day… instead of sitting all day long in a chair and then exercising one time that day.
See the shift? Folks who knock out an exercise routine and then spend time sedentary in between trips to the gym are at higher risk for cardiometabolic disease then folks who are simply more active throughout the day.
That’s why being a caretaker for a pet is more healthy than any gym membership on earth.
Simply having fun in your body and moving it in a way that brings you joy is more important then any exercise program out there!
That makes things like walking your dog… tending to a garden or farm… collecting eggs from your chicken coop… and other activities that you may not *count* as important as exercise… actually more important than structured exercise!
Having pets and farm animals encourages an entire lifetsyle shift that is more active over all, instead of simply adding in an exercise routine.
And more active over a lifetime = a longer lifespan.
Yet another study came out showing that prolonged sitting each day is associated with an increased risk of death from all causes including: cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
And important to note: exercising did not protect against this risk or prolong life… even those who exercised strenuously had a higher risk of death if there were prolonged periods of sitting in between work outs.
That’s because it only takes 6 hours of sitting still to significantly decrease the effective blood flow through your arms and legs. Turns out, sitting at work (or at school) raises your mortality risk no matter how hard you exercise before or afterwards.
All in all, researchers have shown that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to at least 35 different chronic diseases and counting, from diabetes, osteoporosis, breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, depression, back pain… even erectile dysfunction!
A great overview study on this was published June 28, 2018 in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
So sustainable health is not about weight, it’s not about working out, it’s not about exercising, it’s not about dieting, it’s not about being a weekend warrior, it’s not about how hard you push yourself on the treadmill, and it’s not about fitting into any Body Mass Index category.
Real health isn’t about a measurement, a weight, a percentage, an exercise program.
Real health is about enjoying the body you are in.
I would rather you simply enjoy play time with a pet daily over pushing your body to the limit in an exercise routine you don’t enjoy three times a week. Over a lifetime, daily activity this makes a bigger difference to your long-term wellness. And as you will see next, elderly folks who own a pet enjoy a more active and healthy lifestyle than those who do not.
That’s because health is about moving your body. Health is about flow. Health is about feeling the joy of using your body to complete the activities you’d like to do each day. Health is about zoning out less (in front of the TV, the computer, the gaming system) and about appreciating the body you are in more.
Medical studies have now shown that pets increase your heart health, actually giving you a survival advantage when recovering from heart attack!
One study followed 240 couples and found that those who lived with pets (even on top of the fact that these were couples who lived together with their human partner!) had lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and maintained this more relaxed heart healthy state even when undergoing stressful medical proceedures, plus they had quicker recovery after stressful events.
This is an added benefit from owning a pet, on top of simply having human companionship, which means pets confir additional health benefits over living with a partner or spouse.
Another medical study that followed 421 adults with severe cardiac disease for an entire year after heart attack found that there was a significant surivaval advantage in patients who owned a pet, no matter how severe the initial heart attack was!
Pets increased owner lifespan following even the most severe heart attacks.
Owning pets also help to stabilize mood, as interacting with a pet increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain (decreasing depression and anxiety) as well as providing theraputic touch… something that anyone at any age can benefit from… childhood on up.
Another medical study of over 2,500 elders aged 71 years old and older, followed over a span of 3 years, found that those who walked dogs routinely had increased strength, increased mobility, and most importantly…
…increased functionality around the home, maintaining higher levels of activities of daily living (ADL) which predicts greater independence.
And yet another study, looking at adults aged 65 + showed that those who owned pets needed 30% fewer doctors appointments than thosw who did not own pets!
So… do you need a gym membership to be healthy?
Do you need to set aside structured time each day to pound out a work out?
Not unless that’s what you love to do!
Do you need to force yourself to stick to a painful or intense exercise program?
All it takes, to support your health from childhood (decreasing asthma and infectious disease) through adulthood and your elderly years (improving cancer recovery, enhancing sleep, supporting heart health, decreasing diabetes and obesity, improving mood, and extending mobility and functionality throughout an entire lifetime) is simply to get a pet and get walking.
Turns out adopting a dog and taking it on a few short walks a day is the best longevity plan!
Enjoy this empowering information and instead of fighting your body… grab your favorite animal and go on a walk with it!