Small or large, long-haired or short-haired, purebred or crossbred: dogs provide an infinite source of joy for their owners. With the health benefits of pet ownership stacking up, a new study adds increased physical activity to the list.

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Dogs: Furry friends or personal trainers?

Previous studies have provided evidence on how our furry friends can benefit our health, such as by lowering stress and altering infants’ microbiota to lower their risk of allergies and obesity.

Now, a new study published in the journal BMC Public Health suggests that older adults who own a dog may be more likely to achieve the activity levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Their guidelines for adults aged 65 and older suggest that this group should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity during a week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity during this same time period.

Doing regular physical activity such as walking can reduce certain health risks, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, certain cancers, and depression.

Researchers from the latest study say that there is some evidence showing that dog ownership could improve physical activity among older adults, but previous studies have relied on self-reported data or incomplete datasets as a result of unreliable activity monitors.

For their study, the researchers gave participants an activPAL monitor, which is worn on the thigh rather than the hip, and uses gravity to distinguish sitting and lying from standing. They note that this monitor is the “gold standard” for measuring sedentary behavior.

There were a total of 43 dog owners and 43 controls aged 65 years and over who took part in the study. All participants were from three regions in the United Kingdom, and they all wore an activity monitor during three 1-week periods between 2013 and 2014.

The team assessed participants’ walking time, standing time, and sitting time, along with the duration and number of times they sat down.

Results showed that the dog owners walked an average of 22 minutes more than the non-dog owners, and they also walked an extra 2,760 steps per day.

“Over the course of a week, this additional time spent walking may in itself be sufficient to meet WHO recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity,” says study co-author Philippa Dall, a senior research fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

Additionally, the team found that dog owners had fewer continuous periods of sitting down, compared with non-owners. Total time spent sitting down did not differ between both groups, however.

Based on their results, the researchers suggest that health professionals could promote dog ownership or shared ownership as a way to encourage older adults to be more physically active.

Although the study benefitted from many strengths – including the reliable activity monitors used – there were some limitations.

Firstly, the observational nature of the study means that the researchers could not establish cause and effect. Additionally, because all participants were volunteers, they could have been more physically active than the general population.

Furthermore, all participants were white and British, so this limits generalizing the findings to wider populations.

Still, the findings point to further benefits of pet ownership, which is likely to make a few tails wag.

”Ultimately, our research will provide insights into how pet ownership may help older people achieve higher levels of physical activity or maintain their physical activity levels for a longer period of time.”

Nancy Gee, study co-author, WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition

The researchers conclude their study by noting that even if dog ownership is not the focus of a study that looks into physical activity in older adults, it could be an “important explanatory factor which should not be ignored.”

Learn how pets can boost health and well-being.