Walkies! The influence of dogs on the sedentary elderly

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EditorsPick3-WalkiesElderly people with dogs appear to meet internationally recognised exercise goals simply by walking their pet, suggests a small UK study.

Researchers matched 43 older adults with dogs to another 43 without dogs and measured their time spent walking. Compared to those without canine companions, dog owners walked on average 23 minutes more a day – enough to meet US and international exercise recommendations for substantial health benefits, the research found.

“It’s very difficult to find any other intervention that produces this size of effect,” said senior author Dr Daniel Simon Mills, a professor of veterinary behavioural medicine at the University of Lincoln in England. “It’s good evidence that dog ownership amongst the elderly increases physical activity in a meaningful and healthy way,” he said in the report.

Participants in the study were 65 to 81 years old, lived independently in one of three counties in England and wore monitors that measured their movements for three one-week periods over the course of a year. The time periods were designed to capture participants’ steps in different seasons and under varied weather conditions, researchers reported.

Dog owners and participants who did not own dogs were matched by gender, height, weight, health conditions and walking abilities. All were white British, and nearly two-thirds were women. The average participant was at least slightly overweight. The average dog in the study was nearly eight years old.

Dog owners walked on average 21 minutes more than those without dogs at an at-least moderate pace, the study found. “Virtually all of the increased exercise is not just dawdling,” Mills said. “It’s marching.”

Over the course of a week, the additional 147 minutes dog owners spent walking at a moderate pace would in itself be just three minutes shy of World Health Organisation recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous weekly physical activity, the study authors note.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults do a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity a week. By matching dog owners to people without dogs, Mills said he believes the new study clarifies that the benefits of dog ownership stem from having dogs, rather than from dog owners being more active in the first place.

But Marcia Stefanick, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, hesitated to ascribe all the benefits to the dogs. “Despite ‘successful matching’ on what the authors consider key variables, a person who is ready and willing to walk a dog at least twice a day is more likely to get a dog than one who sees that commitment as too challenging,” said Stefanick, who researches disease prevention and was not involved in the study.

“On the other hand, once a person has a dog, the motivation and likelihood that he or she would at least walk around the block, with several stops along the way, would clearly be higher,” she is quoted in the report as saying.

The study confirms previous studies in which dog owners reported walking more than people without dogs. It also shows that the additional walking was at a moderate clip.
“We saw a big increase in healthy activity and at a level that is considered to be health promoting,” Mills said.

“If you’d like to get a dog, don’t be put off by the fact you’re elderly,” he said. “It’s good for the dog, and it’s good for you.”

Background: There is some evidence to suggest that dog ownership may improve physical activity (PA) among older adults, but to date, studies examining this, have either depended on self-report or incomplete datasets due to the type of activity monitor used to record physical activity. Additionally, the effect of dog ownership on sedentary behaviour (SB) has not been explored. The aim of the current study was to address these issues by using activPAL monitors to evaluate the influence of dog ownership on health enhancing PA and SB in a longitudinal study of independently-mobile, community-dwelling older adults.
Methods: Study participants (43 pairs of dog owners and non-dog owners, matched on a range of demographic variables) wore an activPAL monitor continuously for three, one-week data collection periods over the course of a year. Participants also reported information about their own and their dog demographics, caring responsibilities, and completed a diary of wake times. Diary data was used to isolate waking times, and outcome measures of time spent walking, time spent walking at a moderate cadence (>100 steps/min), time spent standing, time spent sitting, number of sitting events (continuous periods of sitting), and the number of and of time spent sitting in prolonged events (>30 min). For each measure, a linear mixed effects model with dog ownership as a fixed effect, and a random effects structure of measurement point nested in participant nested in pair was used to assess the effect of dog ownership.
Results: Owning a dog indicated a large, potentially health improving, average effect of 22 min additional time spent walking, 95%CI (12, 34), and 2760 additional steps per day, 95%CI (1667, 3991), with this additional walking undertaken at a moderate intensity cadence. Dog owners had significantly fewer sitting events. However, there were no significant differences between the groups for either the total time spent sitting, or the number or duration of prolonged sedentary events.
Conclusions: The scale of the influence of dog ownership on PA found in this study, indicates that future research regarding PA in older adults should assess and report dog ownership and/or dog walking status.

Philippa Margaret Dall, Sarah Lesley Helen Ellis, Brian Martin Ellis, P Margaret Grant, Alison Colyer, Nancy Renee Gee, Malcolm Howard Granat, Daniel Simon Mills

Reuters Health report
Biomed Central Public Health abstract

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