Why Having a Pet (of Any Kind!) May Boost Your Mood and Keep Your Brain Healthy
Therapy animals have long been the trusted companions of people with disabilities. Now, animals of all kinds are proving their value to individuals with dementia as well as to those hoping to reduce their risk of brain disease.
Physiology helps explain why animals are such effective therapists for all of us, says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health: “Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, in elevated mood.”
Man is by nature a social animal
Depression is common in individuals with dementia, a byproduct of the isolation and loneliness they often experience. Likewise, caregivers can feel alone and overwhelmed by their responsibilities. In both cases, bonding with an animal can help fill this void with social support and, from dogs in particular, with unconditional love.
In addition, dogs foster human connections for their owners. Take Rover for a ramble, and strangers who would never dream of approaching you in other situations will strike up a conversation centered on the animal. Even a mere smile from a passerby is a connection that can brighten your day.
Get your six legs out there!
Walking the dog yields a second, equally important benefit: physical exercise, which is also key to a brain-healthy lifestyle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need at least 2½ hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for good health and double that amount for greater health benefits. Brisk walking (at least 3 mph — that’s 20 minutes per mile) qualifies as moderate-intensity activity. The payoff extends beyond enhanced brain health to weight control, improved cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular strength, and reduced risk of chronic diseases and killers such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
So give the cat a cuddle, then grab the leash and whistle for the dog. Get moving with your faithful companion by your side. You’ve got nothing to lose — and the potential to add years of healthy life ahead.
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If you’re planning to start an exercise program and wondering where to begin, start with your core first, says physical therapist Brittany Smith, DPT. People often think of the core muscles as being the abdominal muscles, but the core includes the muscles in the abdomen, back and hips, all working together as a group.
“The core muscles provide stability for the entire body as it moves,” says Smith. “These muscles are activated when you stand up, turn, bend, reach, twist, stoop and move in most other ways. Everything starts with your core.”
Getting started with your core
To get your core muscles in shape, you need to exercise.
“Our bodies were made to move, so any physical activity is really important,” says Smith.
She recommends these specific core-strengthening exercises below.
The first one engages the deep muscles in the abdomen, called the transverse abdominis. “These muscles help hold us in a better position to stabilize our core, thereby stabilizing our arms and legs,” says Smith.
“The more you work on these muscles, the more it will become second nature to hold these muscles tight when you’re lifting grocery bags, doing yard work or any other kind of physical activity,” says Smith. This will help support your body.
Other muscles that tend to be weak are the gluteus maximus in the buttocks, and the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus on the side of the hip. The bridge and clamshell exercises can help strengthen these muscles.
Smith emphasizes that getting the proper position of these exercises correct is more important than the number of repetitions you do. “It’s better to take your time, maybe do fewer reps, but with better quality,” she says. For that reason, it can be helpful to have the guidance of a physical therapist to get started.
Move on from the core
Core exercises are the starting point of overall fitness because you need to hold those muscles engaged while you strengthen other muscles, such as the biceps in the arms or the quadriceps in the legs.
Smith suggests setting short-term goals (for about a month) and then more long-term goals. Once you have achieved short-term goals, such as getting around more easily, add other types of weight-training or resistance exercises to build muscle elsewhere.
With any exercise you do, always listen to your body, warns Smith. If you have pain other than muscle burn, take it easy. Reduce the number of repetitions, the weight or the duration of the exercises. Then build up gradually. “You don’t have to be in pain to make gains,” she says.
Beginner exercises for core strength
For each of the following, work up to one to two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions once a day.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles, and press the arch of your back down toward the floor, pulling your belly button toward your spine. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Make sure your lower back stays flat on the floor. Relax and repeat.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor with your arms at your sides. Squeeze your abdominal and buttocks muscles, push your heels into the floor and slowly lift your buttocks and hips off the floor. Keep your back straight. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds.
Lie on your side with knees bent in line with your hips and back, draw up the top knee while keeping contact of your feet together as shown. Don’t let your pelvis roll back during the lifting movement. Hold for 5 seconds.