Would You Be More Physically Active If You Got a Dog?

New research suggests it can make a difference.
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(PHOTO: SMIKEYMIKEY1/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: SMIKEYMIKEY1/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Did you over-indulge during Thanksgiving? Could a dog be the answer? A new meta-analysis by an international team investigates whether dog owners are more physically active than people without dogs.

Contrary to popular belief, not all pet dogs are walked. And it’s possible that dog owners spend time walking their pets at the expense of participating in sports or going to the gym. A 155-pound adult uses 493kcals playing soccer or using a rowing machine at a moderate pace, compared to 211 walking. So the question is whether, on average, people who own dogs get more physical activity than those who don’t.

This is of particular interest to public health specialists who want to know how to leverage your dog to make you more active. The scientists, writing in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, explain that “considering the large proportion of dog owners, and that many dogs enjoy being walked, dog walking could provide a potentially viable strategy for increasing population levels of physical activity.”

Owners are less likely to walk a toy or small breed than a medium or large breed. Attachment, feelings of social support, and feeling that the canine provided motivation all had a positive influence on walking behavior.

The team, led by the University of Western Australia’s Hayley Christian, analyzed 29 research studies conducted between 1990 and 2010, mainly in the United States and Australia. They looked at dog owners and non-dog owners of all ages, from children to seniors.

Their results showed that dog owners do get significantly more physical activity than non-dog owners. This was true whether the study used self-report or an objective measure such as a pedometer.

Only 59 percent of dog owners walk their dog. It’s not known why the figure is not higher, but dog size and psychological factors play a role. A study by Christine Arhant of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna found that smaller dogs are taken on a 45-minute walk significantly less frequently than larger ones. This is confirmed in another paper by Hayley Christian (nee Cutt) which found that owners are less likely to walk a toy or small breed than a medium or large breed. Attachment, feelings of social support, and feeling that the canine provided motivation all had a positive influence on walking behavior.

On average, dogs are walked four times a week for 40 minutes each time. Children with dogs take part in dog-walking just under two times a week. Three of the studies analyzed by the researchers looked at the effects of dog ownership over time, and all found beneficial results. A 2008 study in Australia, for example, found that people who acquired a dog in a one-year period increased their walking by 31 minutes a week, compared to those who did not. A crucial mediating variable was whether people intended to walk the dog or not.

A confounding factor in some studies is that they looked at pet ownership, even though cat owners generally do not walk their cats.

Another important issue to consider is how much of every walk is spent actually walking. The scientists say research “suggests that a significant proportion of the dog’s walking time is actually spent sniffing, which may result in many stationary and very slow walking speeds for owners and may also vary according to whether the dog is on- or off-leash.”

So it could be worth getting a dog as part of your fitness routine, but only if you actually intend to take it out for walks. Since sniffing is important to dogs, it should not be omitted, but remember that time spent waiting for your new friend to finish reading the “pee-mail” does not count as time spent walking.

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