The older we get, the harder it can be to motivate ourselves to be physically active. Maybe we keep a chart, or post affirming sticky notes around the house, reward a good workout with a little treat, or join a group of friends in an exercise program.
But the best motivator? A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health said that a canine coach might be the best!
To find out which factors best encourage older adults to get more exercise, a research team from the University of East Anglia and the University of Cambridge in the UK equipped 3,000 seniors with an accelerometer, a small wearable device that measures a person’s activity level. They found that dog owners were in motion an average of 30 more minutes per day.
Project lead Prof. Andy Jones explained, “Physical activity interventions typically try and support people to be active by focusing on the benefits to themselves, but dog walking is also driven by the needs of the animal. Being driven by something other than our own needs might be a really potent motivator and we need to find ways of tapping into it when designing exercise interventions in the future.”
Any dog owner knows that their pooch is a good persuader when it comes to those daily walks—and the researchers also found that not only were the dog owners more active, but they also didn’t let weather conditions keep them indoors. Said lead author Dr. Yu-Tzu Wu, “We found that dog walkers were much more physically active and spent less time sitting overall. We expected this, but when we looked at how the amount of physical activity participants undertook each day varied by weather conditions, we were really surprised at the size of the differences between those who walked dogs and the rest of the study participants.”
The difference was so noticeable that on average, the dog owners spent more time being physically active on cold, dark, wet days than the non-dog owners spent during pleasant, sunny days! Watch Prof. Jones explain more in this video.
A few months earlier, researchers from the University of Missouri studied data from the large Health and Human Retirement study, and confirmed that dog owners reap a reward of better physical fitness, with lower body mass index (BMI) and fewer doctor visits. Said Prof. Rebecca Johnson, “Our results showed that dog ownership and walking were related to increases in physical health among older adults. These results can provide the basis for medical professionals to recommend pet ownership for older adults and can be translated into reduced health care expenditures for the aging population.”
The University of Missouri team also noted that dog owners score higher in another very important factor for healthy aging: socialization. The dog owners spent more time with fellow dog owners and other people. Dog owners can no doubt confirm this; they might walk their dog with others, and dogs provide a natural catalyst for human connections. Even in urban environments where it might not be acceptable to spontaneously strike up a conversation with a stranger, many people feel free to interact with a dog being walked, and with its owner. In this way, dogs not only provide companionship, but also are a catalyst for human connection.
Not every senior wants to or can own a dog, and the decision to own a pet not to be made lightly. But, said Johnson, it’s worthwhile to support senior dog owners. She urges retirement communities to adopt pet-friendly policies and incorporate dog exercise features in their design.