March 18 2013 12:00 AM

MSU researcher says dog owners are far more likely to reach exercise goals

Thursday, March 17 — New research at Michigan State University suggests dog owners who take the time to walk their dogs are 34 percent more likely to meet federal health goals.

Or, one cure to America’s health problems, such as obesity, may be a four-legged friend, MSU epidemiologist Mathew Reeves said.

“If you’re a person not internally motivated to exercise, owning a dog is a way to instill a daily pattern to ensure daily activity,” Reeves said. “It’s free exercise, convenient and you can do it at any time of the day.”

Reeves set out to find if dog owners who walked their dogs were actually getting more exercise than non-dog owners, or if the dog-walking was just a substitute for other forms of activity. It turns out they’re getting more exercise.

Data was collected from the 2005 Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Survey and compiled information on individuals’ physical activity, if they owned dogs and how often they walked them. Reeves prepared these specific questions for the annual survey, he said.

Generally, the federal benchmark is about two-and-a-half hours of moderate activity a week — which includes walking, Reeves said.

“Less than half of the population achieves that goal,” he said. “So, if you own a dog and walk your dog are you more likely to meet that benchmark? That’s where the 34 percent comes in.”

The research was published in the March issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

Reeves said people are moving all the time, but activities like walking dogs aren’t thought of as a means of exercise.

“There was a need for us to accumulate physical activity throughout the day,” he said. “It’s not always about going to the gym.”

Reeves said about 40 percent of households have at least one dog. The data showed that about 60 percent of people who own dogs actually walk them, while the other 40 percent said they couldn’t because the dog stays outside, the dog exercises on its own in the yard or they didn’t have the time. Further, that 40 percent is the least active of the groups he looked at — even more so than non-dog owners.

“All of those might be legitimate reasons (to not walk a dog),” Reeves said. “But the fact is: If you own a dog and you’re not walking it, you’re the least active of the whole population.”

Dog owners who walk their dogs walk about an hour more per week than people who own dogs but don’t walk them, the study shows.

Reeves and his wife own two Labrador mixes. Cadbury (as in the chocolate manufacturer) is 10, while Bella is 5.

“They were part of the stimulus of this study. I’m active outside of dog walking, but I’ve got these two dogs staring at me when I get home,” looking like they want a walk, Reeves said. “They’re a great motivator.”

The human-animal interaction turns out to be positive for both parties.

“Dogs love to go out for walks. If you can give them positive encouragements, they can give you that back,” he said.

Reeves said he thought going into the study that the size of the dog would impact whether people walk it or not, but that wasn’t the case. However, he added a “medium or large dog probably would be a better choice,” if you’re looking for a strong motivator.

So now that we know owning a dog encourages physical activity, should we all go out and buy dogs?

“There are a lot of discussions about the obesity epidemic. Obviously there’s no one one-size-fits-all approach. It’s an incredibly complicated problem that takes different strategies,” Reeves said. “But it makes perfect sense that this is something to promote. A treadmill in the basement does not have the same potential.”