How Dogs Help You Live Healthier (and It's Not Just the Walks)
An active dog is a reliable, built-in workout buddy for the active individual. Especially if you seek out a specific breed with tons of energy and built for long runs on the trail or morning hikes, you can take on dog ownership with the assurance that you’ll never have to get your cardio in alone. But just how much of a difference can owning a dog make in one’s physical fitness or health?
A new study published in Scientific Reports dug into just how likely dog owners are to meet specific physical activity guidelines as opposed to non-dog owners. The British researchers from the University of Liverpool pointed out that we already know and expect dog owners to be more active than people without dogs, but that most previous research only included a single individual in a given household. This group, however, surveyed 191 dog-owning adults, 455 non-dog-owning adults, and 46 children in 385 different households.
“More than 80 percent of dog owners reported doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week—the amount of exercise recommended by physical activity guidelines across the world,” they reported.
They found that dog owners walked their dog a median of seven times per week (so, once a day, as expected) for a median of 220 minutes (approximately 30 minutes per walk). None of these findings should be particularly surprising. Part of owning a dog is the expectation that you’ll be taking it for afternoon or morning walks every day, even if it’s just to let your house-trained pup out of the house for a few minutes to relieve themselves and stretch their legs. However, this survey found that dog owners were also more likely to engage in light exercises like jogging or running even without the inclusion of their pup. So somehow, just owning a dog has become a predictor to a more active lifestyle whether it’s part of your dog-owning duty or not.
“Non-owners weren’t necessarily lazy (around 62 percent also reported exercising that much), but dog owners were roughly four times (or 400 percent) more likely to meet the criteria,” they wrote.
There were also some other interesting findings in the study that correlated dog ownership to some favorable outcomes and circumstances, like weight, higher rates of employment, higher household income, higher levels of education, and even self-reporting more favorable levels of personal health. Some of these factors were worth asking if the chicken or the egg comes first — if owning a dog is a product of these circumstances or a precursor to creating them — but the research also found that the favored results even extended to children living with dogs. The report cited that children in families with a dog showed higher levels of participation in “recreational walking and free time physical activity.”
Think this is just a one-off series of results in the UK? When similar research was extended to other parts of the world, many of the results were repeated, however, participants in the United States, Japan, and Australia were only “60 times more likely to have gotten fit.” The researchers assume this has to do with the standard living circumstances in those countries as opposed to the UK, where people in the United States, Japan, and Australia are more likely to live in homes that have a yard, and therefore a built-in outdoor area for dogs to get exercise on their own.
So does this mean you should run out and get a dog if you’re still lagging on those New Year’s resolutions? Or what if you have a dog already and can’t seem to settle into a reliable fitness regiment? According to Cesar Milan, how you take care of yourself is likely going to mirror how you care for a dog and vice versa. “The dog is one of the most adaptable animals in history and, fortunately, or unfortunately, they adapt themselves to the human lifestyle,” Milan says.
“I have found that when people compromise their own health they often follow similar practices with their pets — overfeeding them and indulging them in dangerous ways,” said world-famous fitness expert Jillian Michaels. “In addition, if the human isn’t prone to getting out and exercising, then chances are they certainly won’t get out to exercise their dog. This is why pet health is directly linked to the health of the pet’s owner.”
The recent research would support these ideas. People who own dogs are somehow more likely to be more active with or without their pet, and that same discipline could easily correlate to caring for a pet. But another factor that might not be as obvious is that pet ownership has also been linked to and proven to correlate with lower levels of stress, another circumstance that contributes heavily to a person’s physical and emotional health. So it’s not simply waking up earlier to let the dog out that gets a person moving, it’s the benefit of mental health that has a massive impact as well. A similar study recently focused on cat owners, finding that having a feline companion at home led to a lower likelihood of cardiovascular diseases. That study, conducted by the Zeenat Qureshi Stroke Research Center at the University of Minnesota found that strokes or heart attacks were less likely among people living with cats, an animal that really doesn’t even require any kind of physical upkeep or assistance in getting necessary exercise.
And what about the people who are active and in the market for an active pup to match their lifestyle? According to Cesar Milan, no dog can keep up better than the greyhound. “Be prepared to run a lot if you own one of these breeds,” Cesar says. “They’re great for cross-country runners, marathoners, and triathletes. Several athletes I’ve worked with have used these breeds in their own training.”