Walk Your Dog to Grow Old Healthier
Dog ownership can positively influence levels of physical activity, but there is little evidence when it comes to older adults.
Despite the considerable gains of regular physical activity for improving their health and overall quality of life, older people remain the most sedentary group of the population. Does having a dog also increase levels of physical activity in people over the age of 65? The answer is yes.
Researchers Zhiqiang Feng, Chris Dibben, Miles D.Witham, Peter T. Donnan, Thenmalar Vadiveloo, Falko Sniehotta, Iain K. Crombie and Marion E.T. McMurdo found that in Scotland, dog owners over 65 years have higher levels of physical activity. They are more active than their counterparts who do not own a dog. Dogs seem to act as facilitators of regular and sustained physical activity in older people. They often go out to walk their dogs, even surpassing diverse obstacles to do so, such as inclement weather or loneliness.
Among participants over the age of 65, only about one in ten own a dog, but 75% of them declare they regularly walk their dogs. Most dog owners are married, live in rural areas, are physically active and have better general health than older people who do not own a dog. Mechanisms explaining higher levels of physical activity among older people owning dogs are rather complex.
The ties built between dogs and owners can be stronger than, for example, those built with a human walking partner. The strength of such a bond might provide an external motivation powerful enough to boost physical activity. Walking dogs may also encourage interpersonal relationships or short social encounters within the neighbourhood and, in this fashion, incentivise further walking. A companion dog appears to have a therapeutic role. By exerting a positive effect on both physical and mental health in older people, dog ownership improves the owner’s general health and pushes them to be more active. However, when suffering physical decline, older dog owners may become less active and risk becoming non-dog owners. These findings suggest that the benefits of owning a dog might be replicable by innovative public health strategies by using other mechanisms, such as the creation of social walking groups.
This Population Digest has been published with financial support from the Progress Programme of the European Union in the framework of the project “Supporting a Partnership for Enhancing Europe’s Capacity to Tackle Demographic and Societal Change”.