October 1, 2016. I’ve been thinking about a recent hike with three borrowed dogs. They were really moving. Fast. More than three miles from the valley up 2,000′ to the top of the mountain. No rest breaks. But this hike was unusually easy and relaxed. No stress. And a huge amount of fun.
Yes, a dog might be the best personal trainer. And the best medicine. Stay with me now – this gets interesting.
Stress Reduction: Is dog-walking the best medicine?
Let’s begin with a quick introduction to the hormone oxytocin. Your brain produces it and it, in turn, produces calm, contentment, reduced anxiety and stress. It’s been called the “cuddle hormone” and it’s associated with romantic and sexual activity and breastfeeding.
It’s also associated with dogs. That is, spending time with dogs and, in particular, making eye contact with them, causes the production of oxytocin. Consider this study with the catchy title, “Short-Term Interaction between Dogs and Their Owners: Effects on Oxytocin, Cortisol, Insulin and Heart Rate”. In the research, each dog owner “stroked, petted, and talked with her dog during the first 3 minutes. Blood samples were collected … Heart rate was monitored telemetrically … The owners’ oxytocin levels peaked between 1 and 5 minutes after interaction. No such effect was seen in the controls. Cortisol [the “stress hormone”] levels displayed a significant decrease at 15 or 30 minutes … and insulin levels did so at 60 minutes. Heart rate decreased significantly in the owners at 55 and 60 minutes but not in the controls. In conclusion, short-term sensory interaction between dogs and their owners influences hormonal levels and heart rate.”
This study in the journal Hormones and Behavior even showed a dose-response relationship. “Owners could be divided into two groups: one received a longer duration of gaze from their dogs and reported a higher degree of relationship with their dogs (LG); the other received a shorter duration of gaze and reported a lower degree of relationship (SG) … We conclude that interactions with dogs, especially those initiated by the dog’s gaze, can increase the urinary OT [oxytocin] concentrations of their owners as a manifestation of attachment behavior.“
Yet another study concludes “People perceive pets as important, supportive parts of their lives, and significant cardiovascular and behavioral benefits are associated with those perceptions.“
Enough with the research. If you’ve ever had a dog, you know they make you happy and calm. If you haven’t, well, now you do. But what about weight loss?
Weight Reduction: Are dogs the best personal trainers?
They just might be the most effective at getting you to exercise regularly. And not just because you have to take them out to relieve themselves if you live in a city; country-dwellers with back doors and backyards end up with long-dog-walk habits, too. Non-owners even borrow neighbors’ dogs for this.
So let’s consider oxytocin and exercise. Then we’ll put two and two together for the big finish.
First, one more piece of research: “Oxytocin and the Biopsychology of Performance in Team Sports”. Its conclusion: “Oxytocin has effects on cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, mind reading, positive and negative social emotions, emotion recognition, gaze behavior and the mirror neuron system may cause convergence of positive emotions and moods between people and make it possible that athletes can respond to the emotional behavior from their fellow players and opponents. So, there is considerable support for the hypothesis that oxytocin plays a role in enhancing team sport performance.“
Well, doesn’t that sound familiar? The researchers found elevated oxytocin levels in athletes who got each other pumped up during games – and showed that this effect spread from one player to another. That’s the “convergence of positive emotions and moods between people” part. Sounds a lot like something that happens between people and dogs.
And this study found “unexpected increases in oxytocin during exercise.” The exercise was distance running. No teammates. All of which got me thinking about that recent hike with three borrowed dogs.
They were really moving. More than three miles from the valley, up 2,000′ to the top of the mountain. No stopping. No rest breaks. But this hike was unusually easy and relaxed. No stress. And a huge amount of fun.
So I’m thinking that walking or running with dogs – fueled in part by all that oxytocin – just might be a Way to enjoy exercise so much that you actually do it. And burn calories and improve your cardiorespiratory fitness.
Here’s a Better Cheaper Way to give it a try. In the comfort of your own home. With a 30-minute video of my three borrowed Labrador Retriever hiking companions. It’s yours for 99 cents in my Treadmill Trails app. You don’t need a treadmill to do this. Just watch the video on your smartphone or tablet while you stand up and walk in place. Or run in place. Right on the floor. Or with a step deck for even more calorie-burning.
Might not be quite as powerful as being out on the real trail with the real dogs. But it’s pretty compelling. Here’s a 1-minute sample. The rest is up to you.