Dog owners who walk their pets are almost three times as likely to meet national recommendations for physical activity as those who don't, according to a new review from researchers at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Dog walking is very popular and could be one strategy to increase physical activity at the population level," said Dr Jesus Soares, lead author of the new research from the CDC.
"We are promoting walking in our communities... and we are trying to support the evidence that dog walking is a promising strategy," he said.
Dog owners met activity guidelines
Combining the results from trials done in the United States, Japan, and Australia showed that of 6 980 dog owners ages 18 to 81, 63.9% reported walking their dogs.
The researchers found that 60.7% of dog walkers got enough exercise each week, generally based on self-reports, to meet current US government recommendations – 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity. By comparison, 37.7% of dog owners who didn't walk their dogs met physical activity guidelines.
In the nine individual studies, walkers reported taking their dogs out anywhere from an average of less than one hour to three and one-half hours per week.
Each study found a significant difference between the likelihood of meeting recommendations in people who did and didn't walk their dogs.
Promote dog walking
The random effects model produced an estimated odds ratio for meeting physical activity guidelines of 2.74 (95% CI, 2.16-4.22).
The time people spent walking their dogs contributed to their total moderate to vigorous activity but didn't account for all of it, according to Dr Soares.
Brisk walking qualifies as moderate-intensity aerobic activity, according to the CDC, and can be broken down into ten-minute chunks and still produce health benefits.
Physicians should be promoting walking for their patients who already have dogs, said Dr. Roland Thorpe, from the department of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
"People who own dogs should make sure that they walk the dog – just having a dog itself doesn't promote health," Dr Thorpe, who wasn't involved in the research, said.
Every bout of activity counts
But it's too early to recommend that sedentary people get a dog to increase their physical activity, he added. Also, the current review can't say anything about long-term health outcomes in dog walkers.
Dr Soares and his colleagues said more research is also needed to consider whether certain covariates may affect the link between dog walking and overall physical activity.
Dr Katherine Hoerster, a psychologist at the VA in Seattle, agreed that future studies should look into "what explains this association and how to capitalise on it."
But Dr Hoerster, the lead author of one study included in the new review, told Reuters Health it's helpful just to know that dog walking can promote engagement in physical activity in general.
"It fits in well with what I think is a really important message for physicians to be giving their patients, which is that every bout of activity counts and is beneficial," she said.
(Genevra Pittman, Reuters Health, June 2012)