“Dogs help us reach exercise targets,” reported the Daily Mirror . It said that man’s best friend is not only a faithful companion but can also make us healthier. According to new research, owners are 34% more likely to hit exercise targets as they walk their pets regularly.
One would expect dog owners who walk their dogs to walk more overall, so this finding is unsurprising. However, this study found that dog owners who walk their dogs also appear to do higher levels of moderate and vigorous physical activity. This may be because they are the type of people who do more exercise anyway – a possible confounder that the study did not adjust for.
The study has some limitations, and it is difficult to gauge the implications of these findings. However, any regular, moderate physical activity, whether it is in the company of a dog or not, is probably beneficial to health.
The study was carried out by researchers from Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Community Health. The research was supported in part by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. It was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Physical Activity and Health .
Generally, the newspapers have reported the study’s findings accurately.
The researchers say that several previous studies have examined how dog ownership increases physical activity and walking levels, but the extent of this increase “remains unresolved”. In this study, they wanted to better establish the effects of dog walking on a person’s total amount of walking and leisure-time physical activity.
This cross-sectional study used data from a 2005 survey of behavioural factors, called the Michigan Behavioural Risk Factor Survey. From this, the researchers investigated how frequently dog walking occurred in the population. They identified the characteristics that were associated with this type of activity and whether there was any association between dog walking and levels of other leisure time activity.
The Michigan Behavioural Risk Factor Survey enrolled a random sample of adults aged 18 and over, and contacted them by telephone in 2005. This is an annual survey in the area of Michigan, and it includes a set of core questions.
Of particular interest for this research were questions concerning leisure time activity (i.e. total amount of walking outside of work) and dog ownership and walking. The survey resulted in 5,819 people who had responded to the initial walking questions and were available for analysis. Of these, 41% owned a dog, 61% of whom walked their dogs for at least 10 minutes at a time.
Participants were asked whether they walked their dog and, if so, how frequently. They were also asked about their dog’s age and breed or size. People were classified as:
The other leisure activities included running, golf, gardening, calisthenics, walking or gardening. Moderate exercise was defined as moderate activities, such as brisk walking, bicycling, vacuuming, gardening for at least 10 minutes at a time, or other activities that caused some increase in breathing or heart rate. Vigorous exercises were defined as running, aerobics, strenuous gardening for at least 10 minutes at a time or other activities that cause a large increase in breathing or heart rate.
Responses to the questions about moderate and vigorous exercise were compared against recommended exercise levels from public health guidelines to determine whether participants had regular levels of each.
The researchers compared the three groups’ weekly duration of dog walking, total walking, duration of other leisure time physical activities and moderate and vigorous exercise levels.
The study used standard statistical analyses to compare the three dog walker groups. It assessed how age, ethnicity, gender, education and household income influenced the frequency of dog walking, and also by some of the dogs characteristics, including size and age. Factors associated with dog walking were determined using regression analysis. The median (average) duration of walking and other levels of exercise were then compared between different dog walker groups.
Dog walking was more common in younger people and those with a higher education level. Gender, ethnicity and income were not related to how much dog walking people took part in. People who walked their dog did so an average of three times a week for approximately 25 minutes each time.
Overall, dog walkers walked more during the week and did more leisure time activities than people who did not own a dog. Importantly, dog owners who did not walk their dogs were much less likely than those who did walk their dogs to walk the recommended levels or to participate in other leisure time activities.
Younger and larger dogs were more likely to be walked longer. Dog walkers were also more likely to do moderate and vigorous activities during the week – approximately 40% more likely than people who did not own a dog. These results accounted for factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, education, income and general health status.
The researchers were unsurprised to find that dog walking contributed to the total amount walked in the week. However, more notably, dog walkers were more physically active overall than those who didn’t own a dog or those who owned a dog but didn’t walk it. Dog walkers were also more likely to meet the recommended levels of weekly physical activity.
Finding that walking a dog increases the overall level of weekly walking compared to not owning a dog is not surprising. More interesting is the finding that levels of moderate and vigorous physical activity are also increased, which means that people who own a dog and walk it are more likely to meet the levels of exercise recommended by public health guidelines.
It appears that it is not the dog per se that has this effect: people who own dogs but don’t walk them (or don’t walk them very much) appear to have lower levels of overall activity than people who don’t own dogs at all. It seems that owning a dog but not walking it is bad for the dog’s owner as well as the dog.
The study did not directly measure the health of the dog owners, but just their levels of physical activity. However, any regular, moderate physical activity is likely to be beneficial to health, whether it’s in the company of a dog or not.