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Owning a dog may encourage older people to exercise

4:30pm Friday 9th June 2017 content supplied byNHS Choices

Researchers, blinded to whether the participants owned a dog or not, assessed walking times and looked at how they adhered with national physical activity recommendations (150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity).

What were the basic results?

Eleven people dropped out of each of the two groups (25% drop out). But compliance with wearing the activity monitors for a full week in each assessment period was very high, at 92%.

Two-thirds of participants were women, with an average age of 70 and an average body mass index (BMI) on the borderline of overweight (25.6kg/m2).

Allowing for variance in dog ownership characteristics, dog owners walked for significantly longer than non-dog owners.

Each day, they walked 2,762 additional steps, and walked 23 minutes longer in total and 21 minutes longer at a moderate walking pace.

Dog owners were also more likely to meet guideline physical activity recommendations (87% versus 47%; odds ratio [OR] 75, 95% confidence interval [CI] 3-2,167).

But this is a surprisingly high confidence interval, which undermines the validity of this result. 

There was no difference in sedentary times or sleep/wake times.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that, "The scale of the influence of dog ownership on [physical activity] found in this study indicates that future research regarding [physical activity] in older adults should assess and report dog ownership and/or dog walking status."

Conclusion

This relatively small observational study shows that dog owners over the age of 65 walk more than matched controls who don't own dogs.

This finding is perhaps not surprising, given that dogs need to be walked every day. People without dogs may not have this sort of incentive to get out walking.

So, it could be assumed that the dog is the direct cause of the increased walking time.

But it's also possible that more active people who enjoy spending time outdoors may be more likely to own dogs.

For all we know, the dog owner group may have been more active even if they didn't have dogs.

There are some points to note about this study:

  • The study had a fairly small sample and quite a high drop out rate. This means the differences in walking time can't be taken as definite - larger samples of dog walkers and non-dog walkers, or those from different regions, could have given different time differences.
  • The big improvement in meeting physical activity recommendations may not be accurate because of the high confidence intervals around the figures.
  • If reliable, the roughly 22-minute difference in how much dog owners walked each day may be expected to make a difference to health outcomes, but we can't be certain about that.
  • Normal walking/sedentary habits and information about the person's health were self-reported, which may introduce inaccuracies. The research doesn't focus on the health of participants, but it's possible that people with more chronic health conditions could walk less or be less likely to be the main person looking after a dog.
  • The sample mainly included women, all the people involved were White British, and all were over the age of 65. This means the results can't easily be generalised to the whole population.

Current public health guidelines recommend taking at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity like cycling or fast walking every week, and strength exercises on two or more days a week.

You don't need to have a dog to be more active - read more about exercise as you get older.

Summary

"NHS should prescribe dogs to keep over-65s fit," the Daily Mail reports. The headline was prompted by the results of a new study with the rather unsurprising finding that older adults who own dogs walk more than those who don't.

Links to Headlines

NHS 'should prescribe dogs' to keep the over-65s fit: Pensioners who have a pet get an extra 22 minutes of exercise each day. Daily Mail, June 9 2017

Links to Science

Dall PM, Ellis SLH, Ellis BM, et al. The influence of dog ownership on objective measures of free-living physical activity and sedentary behaviour in community-dwelling older adults: a longitudinal case-controlled study. BMC Public Health. Published online June 9 2017

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