The science behind the benefits of walking your dog

Do you want to know what goes on in your body when you walk the dogs? Why do you feel better, more connected, and sane after doing it? This article is about its science and how light early in the morning affects our moods.

Yeray Lopez Portillo
Yeray Lopez Portillo
Takes 5 minutes

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The benefits dogs bring to us might be felt differently from person to person. Sometimes the experience of caring for dogs is carried out predominantly by one member of the household. Other times, the whole family partakes in the burden and the bliss of having our hairy friends' needs covered, their space respected, and their walks done.

From what I read, there is a spectrum of involvement in what it means to have a dog. On one side, we find owners or tutors that are a bit more practical or pragmatic. On the other hand, we see individuals emotionally involved with what they consider a family member. I find myself part of the latter group and consider my dogs indispensable in my life.

I am writing to discuss the physical and mental benefits of specifically walking with your dogs each morning. It will not be an exhaustive list, and there might be things left out. For example, I won't talk about how dogs ease our way into conversations, how they encourage us to socialize, put us in nature throughout the seasons, or even up to what point pets help us construct our identity. Many of us certainly think that we belong to a group that has some fundamental values in common. Does this happen to you too?

Today I will talk about science and what goes on in our bodies when walking our dogs, how it helps regulate our early moods, sleep, energy, and muscle tone and reduces the risk of being victims of certain diseases.

I would say that the early walk with my galgos is part of my daily medicine. I don't usually get up in the brightest of moods. If I were to quantify my average daily level of happiness when I leave the bed on a ten-based scale, I would put it at four or five. When I return home, I would say that I am almost always circling the number seven; I am much more positive about my day and engaged with the role I play in the happiness of others. So what happens?

Roughly put, the benefits include:

  • Improved cardiovascular fitness.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Stronger muscles and bones, especially from age 30 when we begin to lose bone more rapidly. The vertical pressure on the bone while we walk encourages bone strengthening and growth.
  • Decreased stress.

Vision as a secret weapon

Vision is the most potent lever to shift our state of mind and body. Thanks to the light entering the eyes, which are part of your central nervous system as the retinas are, in fact, protrusions of your nervous tissues, you set the "clock" of your body and the many reactions that will set you for the day.

Our eyes have two main functions: detecting shapes and colors and telling our circadian clock to adjust our inner state depending on what we see. That is impressive! For example, think about being stressed. In those states of agitation your vision narrows, becoming more like a tunnel, and your breathing frequency increases. The inner emotional conditions affect our vision and breathing when we are stressed, but this works in the other direction as well. If we breathe slowly, we calm ourselves. In the same way, if we expose our eyes to wide and far horizons, we can collect our inner state of anxiety quite effectively. Remember to look at wide spaces when you are nervous; it will help us to calm down.

Our light viewing behavior enormously affects our alert levels and capacity to fall asleep later in the day. Every cell in your body needs to know what time of day it is; that is why the circadian clock exists. It does exist not just for sleep but for timing every reaction in the body.

The information the circadian clock requires to be set comes from the light that a group of neurons, placed at the lower back of the eyes, gets early in the morning. So, if you want to be more alert, expose your eyes to at least ten minutes of bright light coming from above, so it hits those neurons that we talked about, first thing in the morning. What better source of such light than the sky, even during cloudy times! Since I learned this, I walk my dogs right after getting up from bed. Nothing comes first. This early light exposure triggers the release of healthy cortisol, which encourages wakefulness and focus. It also inhibits melatonin secretion, the hormone of sleepiness, and starts the timer for the onset of its production again, later on, to fall asleep. If you want these benefits, do not walk the dogs with sunglasses:)

Early light exposure also triggers the release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, an essential hormone for motivation. So, mix that with being outside, maybe in nature, with your friends, activating your muscles and blood pumping effect that oxygenates and cleanses your body, and you get an excellent start to the day.

Note: As sleep is one of my interests, try to get that light exposure 14 to 16 hours before bedtime. As we said before, light inhibits melatonin production, so exposure to light during the dog walk will make you less sleepy.

Visual flow

Dr. Huberman talks a lot about visual flow, which is how the eyes perceive objects moving towards us as we walk forward. This seems to have an uplifting effect, preparing your brain for action and activation. He also mentions the impact that lifting your eyes has on your energy levels. So remember not to look at the ground all the time when you walk.

Boosting muscular tone

When we get up from bed, the vestibular system, the sensory apparatus of the inner ear that helps the body maintain equilibrium, tells the muscles to increase their strength and get ready for working against gravity. Walking moves our heads slightly from one side to the other, and that input prepares our muscular tone for action, making us feel more vital.

The same effect is produced by the constant impact against the ground by our feet. The receptors on the plant of your feet tell your brain to increase tone. One trick I use when I feel weaker than usual when I wake up is to sit at the edge of the bed and tap my feet against the floor while softly moving my head. I do this for two to three minutes.

Use your second heart

The calf muscle, situated on the back of the lower leg, is called the "second heart" due to the amount of blood it pumps up when activated. Walking increases kidney filtration due to that extra movement of blood made by the contraction of these and other leg muscles.

Consistent walking can additionally improve digestive health. This is because walking helps the contents of your intestine move along.

Long story short

Enjoy your walk and view them as what they are, a very healthy habit. This post is not intended to give medical advice, I have a background in physiotherapy, but I am not a doctor. This is what works for me, and I hope that it helps you too.

I hope this was useful to you.
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Yeray Lopez Portillo

My focus is on creating content that entertains, enlightens and sparks dialogue.