There's No "Exercise Motivator as Potent" as a 4-Legged Workout Partner 

"It creates additional activity that we wouldn’t otherwise have done."

dogs exercise

It only takes 10 minutes of daily exercise to stave off early death and combat the scourge of sitting for long hours every day. But the barrier between you and getting out the door for a short workout in the morning can feel insurmountable. Fortunately, a study released Thursday in Scientific Reports shows that the right workout partner can make hitting basic exercise goals, and even surpassing them, feel easy.

Dogs already feel like family and reduce stress in college kids. Now the results of a survey of UK households show that humans who own dogs tend to exercise far more than those who don’t. This study, conducted by Carri Westgarth, Ph.D., a lecturer in human-animal interactions at the University of Liverpool, showed that dogs owners are four times more likely to hit government mandated physical activity goals than non-dog owners. That’s typically around 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week, which 64 percent of dog owners met simply by walking the dog.

“Physical activity is known as the ‘best buy’ for public health,” Westgarth tells Inverse. “There appears to be no other exercise motivator as potent as having a dog.”

dog walking
64 percent of dog owners met the government's advised physical activity guidelines simply by walking their dogs, but most surpassed them. 

But dog owners were also far more likely to exercise in general than non-dog owners, suggesting that they made time to get outside in addition to the time required to care for their best friend. “This study provides new evidence that UK dog owners are considerably more active than people without a dog, and that dog walking is undertaken in addition to, and not instead of, other physical activities,” the authors write.

These findings are based on survey data collected from 385 households in West Cheshire in the UK. Westgarth and her team analyzed each person’s reported exercise levels, as well as how long they reported walking their dog during the week (sadly, 9.6 percent of dog owners reported not walking their dogs at all). They also confirmed the exercise activity of participants in a small followup study on 28 people who wore accelerometers — essentially fitness trackers that measured how active they were during the day.

Overall, they found big differences in the lifestyles of dog owners and non-dog owners. According to the fitness tracker data, dog owners took a median of of 8,038 steps per day compared to non-dog owners, who took a median of 6,081 steps per day. Dog owners were also 14 times more likely to report walking for recreation compared to non-dog owners, and performed an extra 13 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per day. The observations regarding steps and moderate-to-vigorous activity weren’t statistically significant, note the authors, but were still notable enough to warrant a mention in the paper.

dogs
Dog owners performed 13 more minutes of of moderate to vigorous exercise per day than non dog owners. 

This data can’t actually prove that having a dog is the reason that dog owners seem to be more active. And it’s important to note that there are a lot of other demographic factors associated with dog ownership that are associated with better health. Dog owners were significantly more likely to be younger, have higher household income, and have higher self-rated health to begin with. The authors also note that their paper doesn’t make the case someone should get a dog “purely for their own benefit.”

Still, one of the fun aspects of this paper is that it documents just how many different kinds of activities people like to enjoy with their dogs at their side. 5.3 percent of people reported jogging with their dogs, and 2.1 percent reported cycling with their dogs. All together, people spent a median of 248 minutes per week doing physical activities with their dog — which absolutely obliterates the government’s recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise.

“It creates additional activity that we wouldn’t otherwise have done because my other research shows that we feel committed to ensuring our dogs get regular walks, otherwise we feel guilty,” says Westgarth. “This means we make extra effort to fit this type of exercise into our schedules and also do it when the weather is poor, and if we didn’t have the dog, we wouldn’t have gone out.”

For all the advice that the government gives about how to achieve the minimum amounts of exercise, this study suggests they’re missing an important point. It’s far easier to stick to an exercise plan with a buddy, even if that buddy isn’t a human.

Abstract:: Previous research suggests that dog owners are slightly more physically active than those without dogs, but have only studied one household member, and it is unclear whether time spent dog walking replaces other physical activity (PA). A survey of 191 dog owning adults (DO), 455 non-dog owning adults (NDO), and 46 children, living in 385 households in West Cheshire UK, was conducted in July- August 2015. Objective (accelerometer) validation occurred on a subset (n = 28 adults). Survey PA outcomes were modeled using hierarchical logistic and linear multivariable regression modeling, accounting for clustering of participants in households. DO were far more likely than NDO to report walking for recreation (oR = 14.35, 95% CI = 5.77–35.79, P < 0.001), and amongst recreational walkers walked for longer per week (RR = 1.39, 95% CI = 1.27–5.91, P < 0.001). Other PA undertaken did not differ by dog ownership. The odds of DO meeting current physical activity guidelines of 150 mins per week were four times greater than for NDo (oR = 4.10, 95% CI = 2.05–8.19, P < 0.001). Children with dogs reported more minutes of walking (p = 0.01) and free-time (unstructured) activity (P < 0.01). Dog ownership is associated with more recreational walking and considerably greater odds of meeting PA guidelines. Policies regarding public spaces and housing should support dog ownership due to PA benefits.