The Best Way to Stay Active? Walk the Dog

Researchers said they expected people with dogs to walk more than those without, but the size of the gap surprised them. The lead author, who studies dementia, said the results could point to a solution for seniors looking for a way to stay active.

If sitting is the new smoking, there’s one sure way to put out the butt: get a dog.

That’s what researchers from the University of Cambridge report in a study published this week, which found that the difference having a dog makes in a person’s activity level is enormous—much more than they expected.

The 3123 older adults participating in the study wore accelerometers that measured their steps over a 7-day period, and the researchers linked their activity to weather reports to connect their activity to what was happening outside.

Going into the study, the researchers expected that people with dogs would walk more than those without—having one forces an owner outside even on the coldest, wettest days. Still, they didn’t expect the gap to be so large.

“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,” Yu-Tzu Wu, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

While everyone went outside less on cold, wet days, the dog walkers got more activity on these days than the rest of the participants did on the bright, sunny days.

The study reported, “Among the 3123 participants, 18% reported having a dog in their households and two-thirds of dog owners walked their dogs at least once a day.”

“In days with the worst conditions, those who walked their dogs had 20% higher activity levels than non-dog owners and spent 30 minutes a day less sedentary,” the study continued.

A dog is not for everyone, the authors said. But with groups from the US Surgeon General to the American Heart Association advocating 150 minutes of exercise per week—and many not achieving this—having a reason to go outside every day might make the difference for those who can afford a pet. Wu, whose other research focuses on the effects of dementia, said this could be a reason for seniors to consider having a dog.

“We know that 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,” Wu said.

The study was published Monday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.


Wu Y-T. Luben R, Jones A. Dog ownership supports the maintenance of physical activity during poor weather in older English adults: cross-sectional results from the EPIC Norfolk cohort [published online July 24, 2017]. J Epidemiol Comm Health. DOI: 10.1136/jech-2017-208987

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