Dog Walkers Get More Exercise

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If you’ve been thinking about getting a pet dog, here’s another reason to do it. A study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health shows that dog owners are 34% more likely than non-owners to get the exercise they need.

Using data from the 2005 Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, researchers tracked the exercise habits of 5,900 people, 2,170 of whom owned dogs, and found that among the dog owners who took their pets for regular walks (defined as at least 10 minutes long), 60% met minimum federal requirements for moderate or vigorous exercise. Nearly half of dog walkers exercised 30 minutes a day for at least five days a week. Among people without dogs, only a third exercised that regularly.

What’s more, the dog walkers got more exercise overall — above and beyond dog walking — compared with people without dogs. They participated in physical activity like dancing, gardening and playing sports in their leisure time, and got an average 30 minutes more exercise a week. “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,” Mathew Reeves, study author and associate professor of epidemiology at Michigan State University, said in a press statement.

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The findings support results from previous research that found health benefits to dog ownership. In a post on the New York Times’ Well blog, which rounded up the recent findings, Tara Parker-Pope reported this week:

A study last year from the University of Missouri showed that for getting exercise, dogs are better walking companions than humans. In a 12-week study of 54 older adults at an assisted-living home, some people selected a friend or spouse as a walking companion, while others took a bus daily to a local animal shelter, where they were assigned a dog to walk.

To the surprise of the researchers, the dog walkers showed a much greater improvement in fitness. Walking speed among the dog walkers increased by 28 percent, compared with just 4 percent among the human walkers.

Dr. Johnson, the study’s lead author, said that human walkers often complained about the heat and talked each other out of exercise, but that people who were paired with dogs didn’t make those excuses.

Still, as the Michigan study found, not everyone who owned dogs walked them, and even many dog walkers would do well to ramp up their activity. Although two-thirds of dog owners walked their dog, about half of the walkers didn’t walk frequently enough or long enough to accrue at least 150 minutes of walking per week — the minimum recommendation for moderate physical activity. Some people didn’t walk their dogs at all, mostly because their dogs ran free outside on their own.

The researchers also found that younger or better-educated people were more likely to walk their dogs than those older than 65 or with less than a college degree. People walked younger dogs more often than old ones, and large dogs (45 lbs. or more) for longer than smaller ones.

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“There is no magic bullet in getting people to reach those [federal physical activity] benchmarks,” Reeves said in the news release. “But owning and walking a dog has a measurable impact.”