There’s no shortage of reasons to get more exercise in your life — it helps with everything from anxiety to lowering your risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and dementia. But many everyday Americans can't find the time or motivation they need to exercise.
Never fear, though, because there’s a relatively simple life hack to get yourself moving more often: Get a dog.
A Leg Up
Research has long shown that people with dogs are more likely to get a dose of walking on a daily basis. But in 2011, a study also found that dog walkers were more likely to get their recommended amount of moderate or vigorous exercise than non-owners. In other words, people who walked dogs didn’t cut back on other activities to compensate for the effort they made. If anything, they were often active elsewhere, for instance by gardening or playing sports.
On average, they spent 30 minutes a week more on exercise, and around 30 percent met the criteria for the amount of weekly moderate exercise recommended by places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Compared to non-owners, they were around 34 percent more likely to do so.
The caveat here is that only 61 percent of owners actually regularly walked their dogs, meaning a substantial chunk lost out on any potential health boosts. So what makes us more likely to use a dog as a personal trainer?
The Lassie Effect
Earlier this September, a group of scientists, led by Dr. Carri Westgarth of the University of Liverpool in the UK, published their research looking at that exact question.
After having earlier found a similar connection between dog ownership and exercise, Westgarth’s team then analyzed data from an earlier study of dog-owners in Australia. They broke down a dog owner’s probability of dog-walking (what they coined the “Lassie Effect”) into two basic dimensions — how a specific dog encourages you to walk more and what type of dog or beliefs motivates someone to walk them in the first place.
“Our previous research showed that owners are more likely to walk their dogs if they perceive that their dog provides support and motivation for walking,” Westgarth explained to Medical Daily.
The hypothetical top dog for walking? A big loveable breed belonging to a single person. The more kids around, the smaller the breed, or the less attached someone felt to their dog, the less likely they would regularly walk them. Believing that a walk can calm down a dog’s barking while keeping them healthy was also a good incentive.
“If you really want a dog that highly motivates you to walk then choose an energetic active breed, usually medium-large size rather than giant breeds,” Westgarth ultimately offered as advice to prospective new owners, adding that giant dogs can be perceived as too lazy to walk regularly.
As for current dog owners worried about their and their dog’s level of exercise, Westgarth pointed out that it doesn’t take much to get the ball rolling.
“Start by getting yourself out there, whatever size of dog you own,” she said. “Once you start walking it strengthens the bond with your dog which in turn motivates you to walk it even more.”
Those having trouble getting their dogs to willingly go with them to the park can see a dog trainer who uses reward-based methods, she added. And joining a community dog walking group can goad both of you even further, especially the more friends you make. “Not wanting to let down your dog partner or your dog walking friends will keep you motivated,” Westgarth said.
Failing all of that, you can turn to the growing number of doggie fitness gyms that cater to pet and owner alike.
Either way, considering that 54 percent of dogs in the U.S. are obese, according to The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, as well as 38 percent of Americans, it seems that both man and man’s best friend could do with a little more exercise in their lives.
Source: Westgarth C, Knulman M, Christian H. Understanding How Dogs Encourage And Motivate Walking: Cross-sectional Findings From RESIDE. BMC Public Health. 2016.