Having a dog may provide a wealth of emotional benefits to its owner. A new study carried out by researchers from the University of St Andrews, the University of Dundee and the University of Newcastle found there may be many physical health benefits too.
Regular moderate exercise may improve flexibility, bone strength and make one feel younger. By owning a dog, the likelihood of participating in regular moderate exercise increases by 12%. The authors of the study concluded this level of exercise was equivalent to the activity level of someone 10 years younger than the participants. They suggested owning a dog might make one feel this way; which might be particularly important information for the elderly.
The aim of the study was to see if there was a link between owning a dog and having increased activity levels. They measured the physical activity levels of 547 adults, over 65 years old, in Tayside, Scotland between 2009-2010. Factors such as; weather, environment, medical conditions and socioeconomic status were all taken into account.
During the study, each participant was asked to wear an accelerometer for seven days to record their level of physical activity. They also filled out questionnaires covering information on their housing, marital status, education level, pet ownership and medical history. A Social Capital Questionnaire stored information on their relationship networks; including how many friends and family members the individual is in regular contact with. The London Health and Fitness Questionnaire also captured individuals’ attitude towards physical activity.
Lead author, Dr Zhiqiang Feng, said: “Our results show that dog ownership is associated with an increased level of physical activity in the over-65s. On average, elderly dog owners were 12 per cent more active than their counterparts.”
The health benefits from owning a dog may be demonstrated in the need for regular dog walks. This has sparked a debate into the potential development of ‘apps’ for the elderly which may replicate dog-walking experiences and set alarms throughout the week where by they must go out for a walk. Perhaps better then a virtual pet, there has also been the suggestion of dog loaning schemes for the elderly in the UK. A supporting statement from the study read: “Interventions to increase activity amongst older people might usefully attempt to replicate elements of the dog ownership experience”.
Owning a dog which needs a walk may restructure an individual’s time management skills to be more orientated around walking a dog, which aims to be a healthy form of exercise. Factors which effect exercise such as; the weather and mood also enter a new hierarchy of importance. Dr Feng said: “Our results suggest dog ownership may motivate personal activity and enable elderly people to overcome many potential barriers such as; social support, inclement weather and concerns over personal safety. Public health officials should consider setting up schemes to lend dogs to those without them, or to set up walking groups to encourage people to take more exercise.”
Previous studies have shown owning a dog also has a healthy effect on blood pressure and mood. A four-legged companion might make the experience of exercise and activities all the more enjoyable and might provide the friendship and motivation needed for a healthier lifestyle.
What other animals may offer exercise companionship?