How a dog can improve your health

Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says everyone in her home is happier and healthier since getting their dog, Sophie.

"We all started to just eat really healthy and get physical exercise," she told CBS News. "We walk her 4 to 6 times a day."

Connie and her husband welcomed Sophie into their home five years ago at a difficult time in their lives --Connie's parents had died just a few months apart. She says Sophie helped her heal.

"It just brought me out of that sadness," she said. "It's added a lot of happiness to our home and we couldn't imagine life without her here."

The family may be onto something when it comes to getting a pet to improve health and well-being.

A new report from Harvard Medical School found that having a dog can reduce a person's blood pressure and help people lose weight and maintain a healthy body mass index. Research shows dog owners are more likely to get the two and a half hours of exercise each week that experts recommend -- especially important as Americans battle a growing obesity epidemic.

Report author Dr. Elizabeth Frates says owning a dog can also have many psychological benefits, such as reducing loneliness, stress, anxiety and depression.

"When a dog owner looks into a dog's eyes and pets the dog, the owner will release oxytocin, the love hormone," she told CBS News. In addition, she noted that petting a dog can reduce a person's levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The new report supports past research that found pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. In 2013, the American Heart Association reviewed previous research on how pets affect human health and found that owning a pet was associated with fewer heart disease risk factors and increased survival among patients. The study was published in the journal Circulation.

Dr. Frates said if you are not currently very active and are thinking about getting a dog, it's best to work up to it slowly. She suggests walking for 10 minutes a day a few times a week to start and then build up to more walking time.