Taking the dog out for a walk may boost older people’s physical activity levels and seems to cut an average of 30 minutes off their daily sitting time, suggests a study in Norfolk.
Based on their findings, the researchers suggested that dog ownership or community schemes for dog walking could form part of exercise on prescription for this age group.
“Dog walking groups may provide wider wellbeing benefits associated with increased social contact”
They noted that, in the UK alone, it was estimated that less than half of older adults engage in the recommended weekly quota of at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity.
To find out if dog walking might motivate older adults to become more active, they used data from the Norfolk arm of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC).
EPIC, which began in 1993, originally aimed to look at the potential links between diet and cancer, but has since been broadened to include long-term conditions, disability, and death in middle age and later life.
Between September 2006 and December 2011, a sample of 3,123 adults aged between 49 and 91, were asked to wear a pedometer for seven consecutive days during waking hours, and provide information on regular physical activity.
They were also asked whether they owned a dog, and if so, how often they took it for a walk.
Almost 18% said they owned a dog, of which two thirds said they walked their dog at least once a day – classified as a regular dog walker – while the remining third walked their dogs less than this.
The entire sample spent an average of around 11 hours (667 minutes) every day sitting down, and tended to be less active when it rained, was cold, and the days were short in length.
The regular dog walkers were less active on rainy than on dry days too, but they were still more active on these days than people who did not own a dog.
In addition, they did more physical activity when the temperature fell below 10 degrees Celsius than did those who walked their dogs irregularly or who did not own a dog on the warmest days.
Regular dog walkers were also more active even on the shortest days than either of the other two groups.
Their physical activity levels were typically 20% higher, and they spent 30 fewer minutes every day sitting down than did people who did not own dogs.
Overall, dog owners who regularly walked their pets were more active and less sedentary on the days with the worst weather conditions than were people who did not own a dog on days with the best weather conditions.
“Our findings hint at the important additional role of extrinsic motivation, in this case the need for the dog to be exercised even in poor weather,” the researchers said in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
They suggested that their findings “may have considerable potential to support the maintenance of physical activity in older adults and could form part of exercise on prescription schemes.”
“In cases where dog ownership is not possible but where the functional status allows, dog walking opportunities for older adults who do not own a dog could be organised by local community organisations or charities, and dog walking groups may provide wider wellbeing benefits associated with increased social contact,” they added.
Borrow my Doggy, a nationwide UK network, which provides regular group dog walks for people who are not dog owners, might be one such option, they suggested.
They acknowledged some caveats to their findings, such as, those in good health were more likely to be dog owners and to walk their dogs regularly, so reverse causation could not be ruled out.
In addition, the climate in the East of England is reasonably temperate so the observed protective effect of dog ownership might not apply in other regions with more extreme weather conditions.