Walking is the most common form of physical activity for people over age 60, and it’s good for them. Among other benefits, it’s linked to a lower risk of heart disease and can improve leg strength and increase endurance.
Dog owners, studies have found, get more exercise than people who don’t have dogs, probably because of the walking involved.
So, do seniors who walk their dogs have better health and get more exercise? Yes, according to a new study in the journal The Gerontologist.
To come to this conclusion, researchers at Miami University in Ohio and the University of Missouri looked at data from the 2012 Health and Retirement Study, a biennial survey of Americans older than 50 that is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. They found that those who walked dogs had lower body mass indexes, fewer limitations in daily activities, fewer chronic conditions and fewer visits to the doctor. They also got exercise more often and did it more vigorously.
Those who owned dogs but didn’t take them on strolls, however, had poorer health. “Dog walking appears to be the mechanism by which dog ownership promotes health,” the study said. It noted, however, that it wasn’t clear whether the dog-walking actually caused the better health.
Still, co-author Rebecca Johnson, a professor at the University of Missouri and director of its Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, said she felt confident that the association between the dog-walking and health, combined with previous studies on the benefits of dog ownership, should be enough to prompt medical professionals to recommend seniors both have a pooch and walk it.
“The whole body of literature on dog ownership . . . indicates that the dog is unconditionally loving,” Johnson said. “They are a social lubrication, meaning other people talk to people if they’re out walking their dog. They’re a bridge to other generations.”
But there may be good reasons to think hard about adopting a dog. Hal Herzog, a psychology professor who studies human-animal relationships at Western Carolina University, praised the study’s large sample size and analysis, and he said the association between dog walking and health appeared to be strong. But he said it’s important that it didn’t show dog walking caused better health.
“It is equally likely that elderly people who are in good health have the energy to walk their dogs,” he said. “It is critical in these types of studies that readers do not confuse correlation and causality.”
There also can be cons to owning dogs, Herzog said. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, reported in 2006 that more than 86,000 people are injured each year in falls associated with cats and dogs — mostly with dogs — with increasing rates of injury as people get older.
Johnson acknowledged that dogs can come with downsides, and she noted that one doesn’t have to own a dog to reap the benefits of walking one — walking shelter or friends’ dogs works, too. But she said seniors shouldn’t have to forgo pet ownership just because it can involve lifting heavy bags of dog food, changing litter or visits to the vet. Older people also have trouble changing light bulbs, she said.
“They need help, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have electric light,” Johnson said. “People say, ‘Well, it’s a burden for older people to have dogs because they need help.’ Sure, they need help. As they age, they need help with a lot of things.”