Dogs keep older owners more active – or are active people just more likely to own dogs?
A prescription for keeping people on the older side of 50 active: find a way to get access to a dog, then walk it, even when the weather’s cold and wet.
Researchers in the UK wanted to find out if older people who owned dogs were more active than their non-dog owning counterparts. To do that they got 3123 people aged 49 to 91 to wear pedometers for seven consecutive days during waking hours, at some point between September 2006 and December 2011.
The researchers particularly wanted to know whether dog ownership played a role in keeping older people physically active particularly at times when the weather was inclement.
Authors of the study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, seem to have no doubts that is is a good idea to get older people outside even when it is wet and cold.
They note it has been suggested dogs may enhance the resilience of their owners to poor environmental conditions. The medical community seems to be fretting about the inactivity of older generations, as well as worrying about youthful lethargy.
In the UK, it is estimated less than half of older adults engage in the recommended weekly quota of at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity.
Of those in the study, 18 per cent (573) were dog owners, and of those, two-thirds said they walked their dog at least once a day, which classified them as regular dog walkers.
The study found that on the shortest days, and those with lower temperatures and higher precipitation, regular dog walkers recorded physical activity levels that were typically 20 per cent higher than non-dog owners and they were around 30 minutes a day less sedentary.
“Indeed, the magnitude of disparities was such that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were on average more active and less sedentary on days with the poorest conditions than non-dog owners were on the days with the best conditions,” the report said.
The average time spent sitting down every day by those in the study was 667 minutes – around 11 hours.
The authors accept the study has some limitations. In particular, they can’t rule out the possibility of “reverse causality” – that more active people are more likely to own dogs.
Also dog ownership decreased with age in the study sample, highlighting concerns about encouraging dog ownership. While older adults might have more free time, declines in health status or housing conditions could limit people’s ability to care for dogs in their household.
The study suggested a solution might be for local community organisations or charities to organise dog-walking opportunities. Dog walking groups might provide wider well-being benefits associated with increased social contact.
Links might be made with groups such as nationwide UK network Borrow My Doggy, which provided regular group walks for non-dog owners looking for the opportunity to walk a dog.
Participants in the study were involved in the Norfolk arm of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, which started in 1993, originally to look at links between nutrition and cancer. It has broadened its focus to include factors associated with long term conditions, disability, and whether people die in middle age or later.