The study finds walking the dog is linked to improved measures of physical health in seniors.
Federal recommendations state that adults of all ages should ensure they get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity.
Walking is an easy way to reach this target; it is self-paced, requires no equipment and has low impact on the body. In fact, among seniors - those aged 60 and over - it is the most common form of leisure-time physical activity, note the authors.
Now, it appears that dog walking offers a way to help seniors stay active and fit, as senior author Rebecca Johnson, a professor at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, explains:
"This study provides evidence for the association between dog walking and physical health using a large, nationally representative sample."
For their study, Prof. Johnson and colleagues analyzed data from the 2012 wave of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which surveys a representative sample of approximately 20,000 Americans over the age of 50 every 2 years.
The 2012 HRS includes a section on human-animal interaction that the researchers examined for links with other data on physical activity, frequency of doctor visits and participants' health outcomes.
Owners with strong bonds to their dogs walk them more often
The researchers found that dog walking was linked to lower body mass index (BMI), fewer doctor visits and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise.
The team notes that dog walking was also linked to fewer limitations of daily living activities and an increase in social benefits, as it offers a means to meet other pet owners.
Plus, the researchers found seniors with the strongest bond with their dog were the ones who walked their pet more often and for longer periods.
However, the study did not find a strong link between merely owning a dog and improved physical health or health behaviors.
Prof. Johnson, who is also a professor of gerontological nursing, concludes:
"These results can provide the basis for medical professionals to recommend pet ownership for older adults and can be translated into reduced health care expenditures for the aging population."
Encouraging more pet-friendly policies - such as dog walking trails and dog exercise areas - in retirement communities could help boost the health of their residents, she adds.
Last year, Medical News Today learned about another study that found older people face many barriers to pet ownership that can prevent them from reaping the potential benefits to their well-being.