By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Anyone who owns a dog knows that walking them is one of the ways their canine companions get at least a little exercise, whether or not they’re responding to nature’s call. And sooner or later, dog owners — especially older dog owners — also find that walking their dog is beneficial for themselves.
There’s even a clinical study that quantifies it. Recent British research reveals that when older people walk their dogs, they get about 20 percent more physical activity than their counterparts who don’t own dogs.
Simultaneously, they spend around 30 minutes a day being less sedentary than they would otherwise be. The extensive review, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health,1 involved 3,123 men and women with the average age of 70. Each wore an activity monitor for seven days. The data they provided was then crosschecked against meteorological information, according to The New York Times.2
Findings revealed that, overall, the participants tended to be less active on shorter winter days, particularly on cold and wet days. In contrast, those who walked their dogs regularly had a tendency to rack up more physical activity and, significantly, got more exercise on “bad” days than non-dog owners did even when it was warm and dry. Senior study author Andy Jones, Ph.D., a professor in the department of population health and primary care at University of East Anglia in Norwich, England noted:
“There might be two-way causality here, where people who want to be physically active get dogs. But qualitative studies have shown that having a dog gives you incentive to get out, when the easier option is to stay indoors.”3
Why Get a Dog? Do It for Your Dog as Well as Yourself
Researchers involved in the study noted that one of the most compelling incentives to give up sedentary behavior in older adults comes down to individual decisions, and that’s not something even science can control. What could compel someone to get up and move around for at least a few hours every day? Researchers discussed whether “modifying physical and social environments to reduce potential barriers to active aging” could bring about a positive change in the activity levels of older people.4
But the weather and the duration of sunlight are hard to predict or alter, even for dedicated scientists. Those factors are a measurable detriment to older peoples’ willingness to go outdoors. There were discussions about how to “enhance individual resilience” to poor weather conditions. According to the study:
“Physical activity promotion in primary care has been a major focus of research in recent years. Yet despite promise, particularly in older populations who more regularly visit their doctor, there has been limited evidence of substantial success. There is the need to identify factors that may increase the likelihood of any improved physical activity habits being maintained …”5
The game changer, though, was really rather simple, the study authors added: “A growing body of evidence suggests that dog ownership is associated with higher levels of physical activity in adults in all ages.”6 A number of studies supported that conclusion. One noted that:
“Further exploration of the relationship between dog ownership and physical activity levels may be important for preventing declining levels of physical activity and the associated detrimental health effects.”7
Statistics Regarding Dog Ownership
Among the total number of people whose data was used in the study, 18 percent reported being a dog owner, and two-thirds of that number said they walked their dogs a minimum of once per day. The study asserted that:
“Those who walked dogs were consistently more physically active than those who did not regardless of environmental conditions. These large differences suggest that dog walking, where appropriate, can be a component of interventions to support physical activity in older adults.”8
Results gleaned during the study suggest the possibility that conscientious individuals who acknowledge their own sedentary tendencies may kill a few birds with one stone, so to speak, by getting a dog. As a result, dog owners may be compelled to not only respond to their dog’s physical needs, but their own, even when the weather isn’t the best.
A Harvard Medical School report9 stated there are multiple health benefits of having a dog. One of the most obvious, especially for people who already own a dog, is companionship. Beyond that, dog ownership helps you physically, mentally and emotionally.
So the upshot is, owning a dog prompts you to be more physically active, but also reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation, plus de-stresses and calms you. In fact, just petting a dog can lower your blood pressure,10 as well as reduce cortisol levels and release endorphins.
Physical Activity for Health — Including Your Dog’s Health
At least in the U.K., and arguably in the U.S. and other countries around the world, older adults need a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per day, according to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Physical Activity Fact Sheet, a subsidiary of the World Health Organization (WHO).11 There’s plenty of scientific evidence showing how crucial exercise is for maintaining health, regardless of your age.
Exercise provides energy, strengthens your muscles and improves your range of motion. It not only helps alleviate pain but fights the many disorders and diseases that come with age. For humans, clinical studies and anecdotal evidence show clearly that regular exercise, even apart from other healthy lifestyle habits, positively affects a number of crucial factors in your overall health, such as improving your heart, your brain, your obesity risk and overall wellness.
But there’s also an emotional connection. Research shows that people who walk their dogs are considered fitter than their non-dog-owning counterparts. Residual effects include more energy to pursue other worthwhile enterprises, like gardening. But how important is exercise for dogs?
Rather than opening the door to allow your dog to do a quick dash outdoors for a bathroom break, dogs require exercise at least three days a week to maintain muscle tone (and that’s just the minimum to prevent their muscles from becoming atrophied), ideally elevating their heart rate for 20 minutes.
It must be said: Having a dog to care for is for far more than just maintaining their bodily functions as an incentive to get yourself out more. When a dog moves into your home, it’s important that you also allow them to move into your heart. That’s what makes taking care of them a driver in getting you “out there” as well.
Why Get a Dog? Do It for a Lifetime of Mutual Support and Friendship
Countless families all around the globe from the beginning of time have learned a number of life lessons just from owning a dog. They can be a protector, and some were bred to hunt and work for humans. But the most rewarding reason by far is the emotional connection.
At least one particularly well-thought-out shelter program pairs older pets with older humans. Fostering a dog is a wonderful way to get in on the joys of dog ownership, knowing you will be helping a dog needing a long-term home, but on a short-term basis.
If you’re already a dog owner, you already know there’s much more to the relationship than caring for their physical needs. While it’s a significant responsibility, it’s also a privilege to share mutual bonding and emotional support. It calls for a commitment to care for an animal for however long you have together, and the benefits for both of you are too many to count.