Dog owners often say the best thing about dogs is their unconditional love.
But new research suggests there's another benefit, too. Dog owners walk more.
In a study published Monday in the journal BMC Public Health, dog owners on average walked 22 minutes more per day compared to people who didn't own a dog.
And they weren't just dawdling.
"Not only did we see an increase in exercise, but also the exercise was at a moderate pace," explains study author Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln, in the United Kingdom.
The study found that the dog owners walked briskly and got their heart rates up. At times, their pace was about 3 miles per hour, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers moderate intensity.
Prior studies have shown that moderate-intensity walking is just as effective as running in lowering the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and other conditions. And the more people walk, the more the health benefits increase, according to the American Heart Association.
The U.K. study included men and women in their 60s and older. Some were dog owners and some were not. In order to assess the intensity of the walking, the volunteers agreed to wear activPAL devices, which measure speed, distance and other factors.
"People wore it 24 hours a day, which gave us a real insight into the total amount of activity," explains Mills, who was surprised by how much more active the dog owners turned out to be.
"This is a great study," says Robert Sallis, a family physician with Kaiser Permanente in California. He was not involved in the research, but commented on the findings.
"The national physical activity guidelines call for 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, and that's what they got in this study," says Sallis. In contrast, a CDC analysis has found that only about 50 percent of Americans get that much exercise every week.
Sallis says adopting a dog may help put an end to the excuses people have for not exercising. As dog owners know, when your hound leaps up onto your bed in the morning, you have little choice but to get up and go.
"If you look at studies on pet ownership, people who own pets seem to live longer than those who don't own them," Sallis says. An analysis from the American Heart Association finds dog ownership can protect against cardiovascular disease, for example.
Sallis says as beneficial as it is for our health, walking is not likely the only factor that explains why pet ownership is linked to longevity. Companionship can lead to lower rates of depression and stress, he says. "I think having a pet as you grow older is a great idea."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Dog owners often say one of the best things about dogs is their unconditional love. A new study suggests there's another benefit, too. Dog owners walk a lot more than people who don't have dogs. The question is, is it enough to count as exercise? NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Every morning about 6:30 a.m., Evan Reynolds (ph) gets a wake-up call from Fenster (ph), his 2-year-old rescue dog.
EVAN REYNOLDS: He came up on the bed this morning and said I'm here now...
REYNOLDS: ...Because he needed to go out.
AUBREY: And so Reynolds got up, got dressed and headed straight to the park. It's a daily routine he cannot escape.
REYNOLDS: How you doing there, buddy? OK, that is a good hound.
AUBREY: How many minutes do you think you've walked this morning already?
REYNOLDS: Coming up on an hour. We've had little stops along the way like we're doing now.
AUBREY: Now, I know what some of you may be thinking. Dog walkers often look like they're just out for a leisurely stroll. And there's been debate about whether this really gives people the exercise they need to help cut the risk of disease. Previous studies have used pedometers to estimate how many steps dog walkers get from their daily routine. But Daniel Mills, a researcher at the University of Lincoln in the U.K., decided to do something more to measure the intensity of exercise.
DANIEL MILLS: What we did is we actually used a much more sophisticated activity monitor in order to assess the effects.
AUBREY: Mills and a group of colleagues recruited volunteers - some who had dogs, some who did not. All of them were in their 60s and older, and they agreed to wear an activPAL monitor for three weeks. The device measures speed, distance and other factors that help scientists calculate the intensity of exercise.
MILLS: People wore it 24 hours a day, which gave us a real insight into the total amount of activity.
AUBREY: Mills says what they found surprised him. Dog owners walked more, an average of 22 minutes more per day compared to those who didn't have dogs. And it turns out they weren't just dawdling.
MILLS: Not only did we see an increase in exercise, but also it was at a moderate pace.
AUBREY: By moderate, he means brisk. The dog owners were at times walking at a pace of 3 miles per hour, getting their heart rates up.
ROBERT SALLIS: This is a great study.
AUBREY: That's Robert Sallis, a family physician with Kaiser Permanente in California. He was not involved in the research but commented on the findings.
SALLIS: Well, you know, it's amazing. The national physical activity guidelines call for 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, and that's what they got in this study.
AUBREY: Sallis says adopting a dog can help put an end to the excuses people have for not exercising.
SALLIS: If you look at a lot of the studies that have been done on pet ownership, dogs in particular, that people who own pets seem to live longer than those who don't own them.
AUBREY: And he says the walking is likely part of the reason why.
SALLIS: Walking every day reduces your risk of virtually every chronic disease, starting with diabetes to heart disease to cancer to stroke.
AUBREY: And he says the health benefits of dog ownership are likely explained by other factors, too.
SALLIS: Perhaps the companionship, lower rates of depression, stress. I think that having a pet I think as you grow older is a great idea.
AUBREY: If you're up for the responsibilities. The one emotionally fraught side of course is dealing with the loss of a pet. Evan Reynolds says the death of his first dog several years ago was really hard.
REYNOLDS: My routine was off. I put on some weight, all this stuff.
AUBREY: Until he brought home Fenster. Now Reynolds says he's back to walking and feeling good. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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