In news that will come as no surprise to pet owners, an English study has shown that walking a dog provides a huge boost to levels of physical activity in older people.
Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Cambridge asked the more than 3,000 participating seniors if they owned a dog and walked it, and then gave them accelerometers that constantly measured their physical activity level over a seven-day period.
“We know that physical activity levels decline as we age,” said Dr Yu-Tzu Wu, lead author of the paper and affiliated with both universities, in a UEA press release.
While the researchers expected to find that the dog walkers spent less time sitting around than the other study participants, the extent of the difference “really surprised” them, he noted.
Owners were sedentary for 30 minutes fewer per day, on average, according to the study, published recently in the London-based Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Study leader Andy Jones, a professor of public health at UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We were amazed to find that dog walkers were on average more physically active and spent less time sitting on the coldest, wettest, and darkest days than non-dog owners were on long, sunny, and warm summer days.”
Having to meet the needs of a dog can provide a stronger incentive to engage in physical activity than simply being aware of the benefits of such activity, the researchers suggest. They don’t recommend that all seniors get a dog, though, as not everyone is able to look after one properly.
One alternative might be programmes in which seniors walk a dog from a animal refuge twice a week. These programmes “do in fact improve their fitness data,” notes psychologist Andrea Beetz. She adds that people are less likely to cancel a date with a dog than an exercise session with other seniors.
Besides boosting physical activity, dogs can ease the loneliness of older people who live alone, points out Beetz, who for years has studied “animal-assisted interventions” used to benefit humans.
These therapy sessions also promote conversation – be it with the dog handler or other group members – even if it’s only about the dogs, says Beetz.
“The dog, thanks to domestication, is the animal best attuned to us humans,” Beetz says. A gaze from the big brown eyes of man’s best friend can stir even the most socially challenged autistic children, adolescents with behavioural problems and dementia patients.
This last-mentioned group in particular can benefit from the company of dogs, Beetz says. People who no longer recognise their surroundings and are often mistrustful of strangers find physical contact with a dog comforting.
Studies have shown that levels of oxytocin, known as the “love hormone,” rise in many people during contact with dogs. “Stress rates sink, anxieties diminish and trust strengthens,” Beetz says. – dpa/Eva Krafczyk