Why pets and plants could improve your health

Couple spending time with their dog

If you’ve ever owned a pet or a plant, you know the joys of each. That puppy-tail wag makes your heart sing when you arrive home, or perhaps you relish a nightly snuggle session with your cat on the couch. You might celebrate when a peony unfurls into a splash of pink or delight in the hardy nature of a baby cactus. But did you know that pets and plants can also improve your health and well-being? It’s true, and we’ve got the science to prove it.

Fewer peeves

According to a recent study by the University of Michigan, pets can help reduce stress.1 Stress can negatively affect physical health through increased inflammation and cortisol,2 which can put your body in a constant state of alert and may ultimately lead to chronic conditions like heart disease or cancer.3 Pets have also been proven to help lower blood pressure.4

Dog-gone good for your heart

Dogs might be man’s best friend but they may also be good for the heart. One study5 found that dogs can help decrease cardiovascular risk by encouraging physical activity. Simply taking the pooch for a daily walk could improve your heart health. Walking has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events by 31 percent.6 As one of the most accessible forms of exercise, all you and your dog need are a supportive pair of shoes and a leash.

Grow your strength

Gardening can provide great exercise. Mowing, weeding, planting and pruning all require muscle strength, endurance and flexibility. In fact, horticultural therapy7 can help improve dexterity, coordination, balance and stamina. For those less inclined to dig in the dirt, simply walking through a garden, park or in nature may provide similar benefits.

Constant companion

Social isolation has been proven to have negative effects on health including an increased risk of dementia.8 Pets can help combat loneliness and even depression9 as a form of social support, as some pet owners might see their pet’s affection as unconditional and non-judgmental. Pets have even been shown to help those with chronic pain10 through mood management, relaxation and social activation. Pet ownership may be especially important to those living alone11 to provide social connection, meaning and a regular routine.

The garden of the mind

Turns out, surrounding yourself with greenery can improve your white and gray matter (a.k.a., your brain). A recent article12 in the Journal of Environmental Horticulture found that plants have far-reaching benefits on mental health, including reduced anxiety and stress, decreased depression, enhanced memory retention, increased creativity, reduced effects of dementia and improved self-esteem. Being around plant life, indoors or out, can help improve our psychological and cognitive well-being, which may help lead to greater happiness and life satisfaction.

Solutions for the petless and plantless

If housing restrictions or other factors prevent you from living a pet-and plant-filled life, you can still enjoy the health benefits without the ownership responsibilities. You might try volunteering at an animal shelter or community garden. Or head to your nearest park or open space for a stroll. You might offer to pet- or plant-sit for friends and family to help boost your spirits without the long-term commitment. You might even turn your social media feed into a pet or plant bonanza by following related content.

Sources

  1. “How Pets Contribute to Healthy Aging,” April 2019, National Poll on Healthy Aging, University of Michigan, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/148428/NPHA_Pets-Report_FINAL-040319.pdf, PDF opens new window.
  2. “Physiological stress markers, mental health and objective physical function,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 133, June 2020, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022399919311626, opens new window.
  3. “How does chronic inflammation impact the body?” Healthline, 2018, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://www.healthline.com/health/chronic-inflammation#effects-on-the-body , opens new window.
  4. “Therapy dog offers stress relief at work,” Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing, July 2011, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/therapy-dog-offers-stress-relief-at-work-201107223111, opens new window
  5. “Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death – a nationwide cohort study,” Nature, Scientific Reports, November 2017, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-16118-6, opens new window
  6. “Walking: Your steps to health,” Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing, October 2020, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/walking-your-steps-to-health, opens new window
  7. “Horticultural Therapy, History and Practice,” American Horticultural Therapy Association, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://www.ahta.org/horticultural-therapy, opens new window
  8. “Loneliness and Social Isolation,” Humana, Social Determinants of Health, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://populationhealth.humana.com/social-determinants-of-health/social-isolation-and-loneliness/, opens new window
  9. “Loneliness, Depression, and Physical Activity in Older Adults: The Therapeutic Role of Human–Animal Interactions,” Taylor & Francis Online, March 2019, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08927936.2019.1569906?src=recsys, opens new window
  10. “The Role of Pets in Supporting Cognitive-Behavioral Chronic Pain Self-Management: Perspectives of Older Adults,” Journal of Applied Gerontology, Southern Gerontology Society, June 2019, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0733464819856270, opens new window
  11. “Pets provide significant support to older adults living alone: Results from the National Poll on Healthy Aging,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, November 2019, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6840478/, opens new window
  12. “An Update of the Literature Supporting the Well-Being Benefits of Plants: A Review of the Emotional and Mental Health Benefits of Plants,” Journal of Environmental Horticulture, March 2019, last accessed April 9, 2021, https://meridian.allenpress.com/jeh/article/37/1/30/430948/An-Update-of-the-Literature-Supporting-the-Well, opens new window