Dogs Are the Secret Weapon to Staying Active

Walking the dog on a pretty day is a great excuse to get outside, but walking a dog on a rainy day is just as necessary if not more so for a happy home. Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

We know pets are good for your health, so it's no surprise that people who walk their dogs tend to be more active overall than those who don't have pets.

But two groups of researchers from the United Kingdom wanted to delve deeper into the connection between dog walking and health, especially when it comes to aging and bringing other members of the household along for the ride.

More than 3,000 adults participated in the first study. They were asked whether they owned or regularly walked a dog. Participants were outfitted with a device to constantly measure their physical activity over a seven-day period. On average, people who owned dogs were sedentary for 30 minutes less per day than those who didn't have canine companions.

Because bad weather and the shorter days of winter are key reasons that many people don't stay active outdoors, the researchers linked the activity data to weather conditions and daylight hours.

They found that on shorter days, as well as on days that were colder and wetter, all study participants spent less time being active and more time just sitting. Dog walkers, however, were much less affected by those inclement weather conditions. They were much more likely to get outside even if the weather wasn't ideal. The study found that dog owners were 20 percent more active in bad weather than non-dog owners.

"We were amazed to find that dog walkers were on average more physically active and spent less time sitting on the coldest, wettest, and darkest days than non-dog owners were on long, sunny, and warm summer days," said project lead Andy Jones from University of East Anglia's Norwich School of Medicine.

Published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in July 2017, the researchers used data from a study that is tracking the well-being of thousands of residents of the English county of Norfolk.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night

little boy and his dog after a rain
Dogs don't even need the extra gear that humans do for a walk in bad conditions. ToscaW/Shutterstock

"We know that physical activity levels decline as we age, but we're less sure about the most effective things we can do to help people maintain their activity as they get older," said lead author Yu-Tzu Wu from the University of Cambridge.

"We found that dog walkers were much more physically active and spent less time sitting overall. We expected this, but when we looked at how the amount of physical activity participants undertook each day varied by weather conditions, we were really surprised at the size of the differences between those who walked dogs and the rest of the study participants."

"Physical activity interventions typically try and support people to be active by focusing on the benefits to themselves, but dog walking is also driven by the needs of the animal," Jones points out. "Being driven by something other than our own needs might be a really potent motivator and we need to find ways of tapping into it when designing exercise interventions in the future."

The second study, published April 2019 in Scientific Reports, wanted to know if these benefits were true for all members of households that included dogs and whether this activity replaced other forms of exercise.

Dr. Carri Westgarth and colleagues at the University of Liverpool looked at the self-reported physical activity of 385 households in West Cheshire, including 191 dog owning adults, 455 non-dog owning adults and 46 children. Their results backed up the earlier study’s finding, but also found that the dog walkers racked up additional exercise — meaning their walks were just one element of increased overall physical activity levels compared to non-dog owners, even in the same household.

Interestingly, both of these studies were conducted in England, which has a reputation for bad weather, so the studies are a good barometer for the motivation factor

Both sets of researchers hoped that their findings would inspire the development of successful programs to motivate people to be active. But as most dog owners know, when you share a home with a four-legged friend, the daily walk is happening, no matter what the weather looks like outside.