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Taking Care of Your Dog Can Improve Your Health

April 02, 2012 | 5,032 views
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By Dr. Becker

If you’re like millions of other people, your 2012 New Year’s resolution is to get more exercise.

If you haven’t started a workout program yet (or you started one but haven’t been exercising consistently), the warmer months are the perfect time to rededicate yourself to your goal of getting fit.

And I have a suggestion for a perfect workout partner – your dog! He has a two leg advantage on you, but he’ll make a great exercise buddy just the same.

Owners Who Regularly Walk Their Dogs Get Significant Exercise Benefits

Did you know people who take their dogs on regular walks are more likely to be in better physical shape than people who walk with people, or not at all?

And did you know over half of regular dog walkers are considered ‘moderate’ or ‘vigorous’ exercisers according to federal criteria?

In fact, a study published last year by Michigan State Universityi shows dog walkers are more active overall than folks who don’t have canine companions.

Even older people are more inclined to take regular walks when their walking partner is a dog rather than a human.

Several recent studies show that dogs are powerful motivators to get people moving.

About half of all dog walkers get an average of 30 minutes of exercise, a minimum of five days a week. Among non-dog owners, only a third got that much exercise.

One of the goals of the MSU study was to determine whether dog walking adds to the amount of exercise people get or whether it replaces other types of physical activity.

According to researchers, dog walkers had higher overall levels of moderate and vigorous physical activity than other study participants, and spent more of their leisure time in energetic pursuits like sports and gardening.

On average, dog owners who regularly walked their pets exercised about 30 minutes more per week than people without dogs.

Additional MSU study results:

  • Dog walking is highest among young people, with 18 to 24 year-olds twice as likely to walk the dog as seniors over 65.
  • College graduates are more than twice as likely to walk their dogs as people with less education.
  • Younger dogs get walked more often than older dogs
  • Dogs 45 pounds and larger got longer walks than smaller dogs

Large Percentage of Dogs Never Get Walked

Dog ownership doesn’t automatically mean the owner is getting exercise. Some people don’t walk their dogs, and those in the study reported far less physical activity than both dog walkers and people without dogs.

When the non-walking dog owners were asked why they didn’t walk their pets, the answers were interesting:

40 percent said since their dogs ran around the yard, they didn’t need walks 9 percent report their pet had behavior problems that prevented walks
11 percent hired dog walkers 9 percent said the dog was too old for walks
9 percent didn’t have time for walks 8 percent said they (the owners) were too old

 

The question the study doesn’t answer is whether owning a dog encourages normally sedentary people to exercise, or whether normally active people are the ones out walking their dogs.

Canine Walking Companions = More Frequent, Consistent Exercise

Another study conducted at the University of Missouri compared the benefits of walking with a human companion vs. a canine companion for older adults who were residents at an assisted-living center.

Some of the participants selected a friend or spouse to walk with, while others went to a local animal shelter every day and walked a dog.

The dog walkers showed a significantly greater improvement in fitness than the folks who took walks with two-legged companions. Walking speed of the dog walkers jumped 28 percent, compared to a 4 percent increase among the other group.

It seems the people walking with other people were a bad influence on one other, complaining of the heat and talking each other out of exercising.

By contrast the dog walkers, paired with companions who were just happy to get some human attention and spend time out of their kennels, stuck to their daily walks.

As the study’s lead author, Dr. Rebecca Johnson of the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine observed, the dog-walking seniors helped themselves by helping the animal. “If we’re committed to a dog, it enables us to commit to physical activity ourselves,” said Johnson.

Dogs Can Be Great Workout Buddies … But Don’t Get One for That Reason

I think it’s wonderful that dog owners who regularly walk their pets get improved fitness in the deal. That means both the dog and his owner are getting good exercise, which is certainly something we need to focus on in light of the obesity epidemic in both people and pets in the U.S.

However, I’m uncomfortable with headlines I read like, “Skip the Gym Membership, Adopt a Dog Instead,” or “Forget the Treadmill. Get a Dog.”

Plenty of gym memberships get cancelled within a few months, and millions of treadmills end up shoved into a corner of the bedroom to serve out life as expensive clothes hangers.

Acquiring a dog purely to meet the exercise needs of a human is a really bad idea.

As the MSU study made clear, a significant number of dogs rarely or never get walked. The reasons given by owners show a lack of understanding of what it means to be a responsible dog owner, or a simple lack of interest in their pets.

Owning a dog is a privilege and a significant responsibility. It is a commitment to care for your pet for all the years of her life.

Given what is involved in being a conscious, responsible dog owner, I don’t think adopting a dog for the purpose of increasing one’s own fitness level is a good plan. Getting a pet is taking on a living, breathing dependent. It’s really very different from embarking on an exercise program.

To get in shape, join the gym. Or buy that treadmill.

Adopt a dog because you want to share your life with a canine companion … not because you need more exercise.

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