senior couple hiking

Human Animal Interaction

Dogs could help seniors be more active

A new study shows dog ownership may play an important role in encouraging older adults to walk more

Exercising in later life can be a challenge. Social circles diminish. Gyms can be expensive and intimidating; dominated by lycra-clad young fitness freaks. Tired limbs and aching joints make it hard to get motivated. Even advertising aimed at seniors seems to sometimes suggest that, once old, we should all “take it easy”.

As a result, only one in four people in the UK between the ages of 65 and 74 exercise regularly.

However, the health benefits of regular exercise are well known and apply throughout life. Staying active in later years can also help maintain independence – often cited as one of the most important aspects of a happy old age. As a minimum, even regular walks can deliver huge benefits. So what could be done to make senior strolling easier and more enjoyable?

One answer may be dog ownership. Having a hound inevitably leads to waggy-tailed demands for walks, but is there any evidence that this could motivate older people to get up and get out?

A new study, published today in the journal BMC Public Health, suggests that there is a link. Owning a dog may help older adults to meet physical activity targets, according to the researchers.

Activity monitors

The team collected data on 43 dog owners and 43 control subjects from three regions in the U.K. All were aged 65 years and over and wore an activity monitor continuously during three, one-week data collection periods between April 2013 and November 2014. Time spent walking moderately, time spent standing, total time spent sitting were all recorded, as well as the number of times people sat down and how long they sat down for.

“We found that dog owners aged 65 and over spent on average an additional 22 minutes walking, taking an extra 2,760 steps per day when compared to people who didn’t own a dog,” said Philippa Dall of Glasgow Caledonian University who led the study. “Over the course of a week this additional time spent walking may in itself be sufficient to meet WHO recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity.”

The researchers also found that dog owners had fewer sedentary events – that is continuous periods of sitting down – than non-dog owners, although the total time spent sitting down did not differ between the two groups.

“Our results indicate that dog ownership may play an important role in encouraging older adults to walk more,” says WALTHAM researcher Nancy Gee, a co-author of the study. “Ultimately, our research will provide insights into how pet ownership may help older people achieve higher levels of physical activity, which could improve their prospects for a better quality of life, help with cognition, and perhaps, even promote overall longevity.”

Cause and effect

“Most of the research in this area has relied upon self-report measures of physical activity,” says Dall. “The use of activity monitors means that we can data on both the intensity and patterns of physical activity and sedentary behaviour. This allows closer scrutiny of the potential relationship between changes in physical activity due to dog ownership and health.”