I love to walk, but now that the weather is starting to turn, it is getting harder. Fortunately, I have someone who will not let me do that. She is relentless and she pesters me until I get off the couch. Her name is Lucy. She is a German shepherd basset hound mix (I know it sounds impossible and a bit strange but it is true).
Her front legs are shorter than her back legs so she hops. At times walking for her is not easy, but nonetheless she gets me out there every day, twice or three times a day.
How can I beg off the walk when she needs it to keep her joints agile and it is such an obvious struggle for her at times? To top it off with all her doggy disabilities, she is always happy, and she makes me laugh. I have no excuse.
Lucy keeps me in shape. She also helps me to stay calm and control my stress. These benefits are among many reported by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the NIH (National Institutes for Health). Pets can lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reduce stress, help maintain social engagement and prevent loneliness.
Not too long ago, there was a national meeting hosted by the NIH where data was presented from large, well-designed studies of people and their pets. One of the studies found that of those people who suffered a heart attack, dog owners were more likely to be alive a year later regardless of the severity of their heart attack compared to those without dogs. Another study looking at married couples found that pet owners had lower heart rates and blood pressures than those without pets even in times of great stress.
Of more than 2000 dog owners, those who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be overweight than those who did not own or walk a dog. Older dog owners had better mobility in as well as outside their homes.
Dogs are great for helping people to be more social. They provide companionship, and people are always stopping dog owners to pet their animals and chat. Those who feel connected and engaged live longer.
If you are having trouble finding reasons to go outside when it is cold, wet or snowy and/or you are feeling a bit lonely and out of sorts then I suggest you go to your local humane society and find your Lucy. There are so many dogs that need a home. They can be a great comfort and motivation to become fit.
And if I haven’t given you enough good reasons to adopt a dog here is one more,
“You can say any fool thing to a dog and the dog will just give you this look that says, ‘My GOSH, you’re RIGHT! I NEVER would’ve thought of that!”
― Dave Barry
Over 25 years ago I completed a fellowship in the field of Preventive Cardiology, which was a relatively new concept at the time. The idea behind it was to find those at risk for heart disease and stroke and help them to modify their risk factors for disease. We started with family members of those who had a heart attack or stroke. We checked their cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, weight, stress and activity level, and their smoking history.
Trying to change people’s behavior even when they have seen their close relatives suffer heart attacks and strokes is not easy especially if they cannot feel the problems (such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol). One would think treating the actual heart attack patient might be a bit easier. However, a recent study found that 26.4% of men make no lifestyle changes after a stroke, heart attack or major cardiac event, and although women were more likely to make changes (66% made two improvements in their lifestyle habits) only 7.4% made all the recommended changes.
I gave a talk to my physician colleagues many years ago about what I had learned in my fellowship concerning the best ways to help their patients prevent heart disease. After my talk, a Cardiologist got up to give his presentation. He started by saying that they could skip the steps that I mentioned for prevention, because he could take care of all those patients when they had their heart attacks with his balloons and stents.
He was joking (sort of), but the truth is that many people think that they will be cured by these procedures and that it is OK to eat what they want as long as they chase it with a statin drug and consume all the salt that they want as long as they take their blood pressure medicine. Some people don’t take any medication at all and think that if their unhealthy lifestyle choices lead to heart disease, they will be saved by the stents and bypass operations.
What is important to understand is that despite all these procedures and medications heart disease is still the number one killer of men and women. Unfortunately, all the pills and procedures in the world cannot help us if we don’t make healthy changes. But, it does not need to be that way if we are able to take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing.
For example, the Mediterranean diet is a heart healthy diet. It is a diet rich in lean protein, whole grains, vegetables, fruit and olive oil. We know it lowers cholesterol and helps to lower weight and blood sugars. For those with very high cholesterol, the vegetarian and especially the vegan diet can dramatically lower it. It may seem extreme, but it works and can actually reverse the process of coronary artery disease, and the food is good and good for our bodies. It can help people avoid taking medications and see the positive results (like more energy, normal body weight, better mood, etc.).
The best way to cure heart disease is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Prevention is not glamorous and it is not easy. However, it is essential. If you cannot get your blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and/or blood sugar down on your own, take your medications and make the lifestyle changes your doctor recommends. Quit smoking and start moving. If you are stressed, find an activity that helps to relieve that stress….like exercise! When you adopt a healthy lifestyle, you will be amazed how good you feel and how long you live.