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Having and walking a dog may make you fitter, study finds

March 10, 2011
Courtesy of Michigan State University
and World Science staff

Man’s best friend may pro­vide more than just faith­ful com­pan­ion­ship. A new study has found that peo­ple who own and walk dogs are 34 pe­r­cent more likely to meet U.S. fed­er­al bench­marks on phys­i­cal ac­ti­vity.

The re­sults show that pro­mot­ing re­spon­si­ble dog own­er­ship could help many Amer­i­cans get health­i­er, said Mich­i­gan State Uni­vers­ity ep­i­de­mi­ologist Mathew Reeves, who led the stu­dy. Sur­pris­ing­ly, he found that the dog walk­ing it­self did­n’t ac­count for the whole in­crease in phys­i­cal ac­ti­vity among dog walk­ers.

In a new study, peo­ple who owned and walked their dogs were 34 pe­r­cent more likely to meet U.S. fed­er­al bench­marks on phys­i­cal ac­ti­vity. (Image cour­tesy U.S. CDC)


Few­er than half of Amer­i­cans cur­rently meet rec­om­mended lev­els of leisure-time phys­i­cal ac­ti­vity, Reeves not­ed.

“Walk­ing is the most ac­ces­si­ble form of phys­i­cal ac­ti­vity avail­a­ble to peo­ple,” said Reeves, whose study ap­pears in the cur­rent is­sue of the Jour­nal of Phys­i­cal Ac­ti­vity and Health. “Ob­vi­ously you would ex­pect dog walk­ers to walk more, but we found peo­ple who walked their dog al­so had high­er over­all lev­els of both mod­er­ate and vig­or­ous phys­i­cal ac­ti­vi­ties,” he added. “There ap­pears to be a strong link be­tween own­ing and walk­ing a dog and achiev­ing high­er lev­els of phys­i­cal ac­ti­vity, even af­ter ac­counting for the ac­tu­al dog walk­ing.”

Us­ing da­ta from the Mich­i­gan Be­hav­ior­al Risk Fac­tor Sur­vey, an an­nu­al health sur­vey con­ducted by the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­vention and the Mich­i­gan De­part­ment of Com­mun­ity Health, Reeves and col­la­bo­ra­tors also found that dog-walk­ers gen­er­ally walked about an hour long­er per week than peo­ple who owned dogs but did­n’t walk them.

The study an­a­lyzed the amount of leisure-time phys­i­cal ac­ti­vity a pe­rson gets; ex­am­ples in­clude sports par­ticipa­t­ion, ex­er­cise con­di­tion­ing and recrea­t­ional ac­ti­vi­ties such as walk­ing, danc­ing and gar­den­ing. Pub­lic health bench­marks call for at least 150 min­utes of such ac­ti­vity a week.

“There is no mag­ic bul­let in get­ting peo­ple to reach those bench­marks,” Reeves said. “But own­ing and walk­ing a dog has a meas­ur­a­ble im­pact.” He al­so point­ed out the so­cial and hu­man/an­i­mal bond as­pects of own­ing a dog that has been shown to have a pos­i­tive im­pact on qual­ity of life. And since only about two-thirds of dog own­ers re­ported reg­u­larly walk­ing their dogs, Reeves said dog own­er­ship is an op­por­tun­ity for many to walk and exer­cise more.

“The find­ings sug­gest pub­lic health cam­paigns that pro­mote the re­spon­si­ble own­er­ship of a dog along with the pro­mo­tion of dog walk­ing may rep­re­sent a log­i­cal op­por­tun­ity to in­crease phys­i­cal ac­ti­vity,” he said.


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Man’s best friend may provide more than just faithful companionship. A new study shows people who owned and walked their dogs were 34 percent more likely to meet U.S. federal benchmarks on physical activity. The results show that promoting responsible dog ownership could help many Americans get healthier, said Michigan State University epidemiologist Mathew Reeves, who led the study. Surprisingly, he found that the dog walking itself didn’t account for the whole increase in physical activity among dog walkers. Fewer than half of Americans currently meet recommended levels of leisure-time physical activity, he noted. “Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity available to people,” said Reeves, whose study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health. “Obviously you would expect dog walkers to walk more, but we found people who walked their dog also had higher overall levels of both moderate and vigorous physical activities,” he added. “There appears to be a strong link between owning and walking a dog and achieving higher levels of physical activity, even after accounting for the actual dog walking.” Using data from the Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, an annual health survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Michigan Department of Community Health, Reeves and collaborators found that not only did owning and walking a dog affected people’s amount of walking and was associated with greater activity overall. Dog-walkers generally walked about an hour longer per week than people who owned dogs but didn’t walk them. The study analyzed the amount of leisure-time physical activity a person gets; examples include sports participation, exercise conditioning and recreational activities such as walking, dancing and gardening. Public health benchmarks call for at least 150 minutes of such activity a week. “There is no magic bullet in getting people to reach those benchmarks,” Reeves said. “But owning and walking a dog has a measurable impact.” He also pointed out the social and human/animal bond aspects of owning a dog that has been shown to have a positive impact on quality of life. And since only about two-thirds of dog owners reported regularly walking their dogs, Reeves said dog ownership represents a opportunity to increase participation in walking and overall physical activity. “The findings suggest public health campaigns that promote the responsible ownership of a dog along with the promotion of dog walking may represent a logical opportunity to increase physical activity,” he said.