Your dog could very well make for a decent fitness coach, according to a new study out Thursday. It found that adults in the UK who owned a dog were fourfold more likely to get the recommended amount of weekly exercise as non-owners. The boost in exercise, however, might not necessarily be as dramatic for dog owners living outside of the UK.
Researchers in the UK, led by Carri Wesgrath, an epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool who studies how dogs and people interact, surveyed 385 families living in the same community of West Cheshire. This sample included almost 200 dog-owning adults, more than 450 non-dog-owning adults, and 46 children. A small group of volunteers from that sample agreed to wear a step tracker for a week.
They found that more than 80 percent of dog owners reported doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week—the amount of exercise recommended by physical activity guidelines across the world. Non-owners weren’t necessarily lazy (around 62 percent also reported exercising that much), but dog owners were roughly four times (or 400 percent) more likely to meet the criteria. Children living with dogs also reported getting more exercise, while dog owners tracked with a step counter who regularly walked their dogs took more steps than non-owners.
The study’s findings, published in Scientific Reports, are the latest to suggest that dogs can motivate us to be more active. But the increase of exercise linked to dog ownership found in this study is far greater than what has been found in previous studies done elsewhere, including the U.S. Studies in Japan and Australia, for instance, have found owning a dog is associated with roughly a 60 percent greater likelihood of exercising enough; other research has found an even weaker effect.
“It also suggests that dog walking is an additional activity, not replacing other physical activity you could be doing of potentially higher intensity (because you feel you need to walk the dog instead), as dog owners didn’t do less activity of other types such as going to the gym or running,” Westgrath told Gizmodo via email.
There are a few possible reasons for this differing results of various studies on dog ownership and exercise (including the possibility of a methodical flaw with the study). But if the findings are really representative of UK dog owners, then this gap might amount to differences in how people across the world interact with their dogs and their environment in general. Research cited by Westgrath and her team, for example, found that only 27 percent of dog owners in the U.S. regularly walked their dogs for at least 150 minutes a week, compared to the 64 percent of owners in their study.
“It is likely due to cultural and climate differences,” said Westgrath. “In the UK we tend not to have large ‘yards’ and we don’t leave our dogs there to exercise. We also may have a lot of grey and wet weather, and other studies show that most dog owners continue to exercise in these sorts of weather whereas people without a dog are put off and stay inside.”
Moving to the UK and adopting a pack of dogs to get more exercise sounds like a great plan to me, personally. But Westgrath said there are things other communities can do to make things easier for people to both own dogs and enjoy walking with them as much as they can.
“Housing policies and neighborhood planning needs to accommodate and encourage dog ownership and dog walking, by providing plenty of access to nearby local environments that are good for dog walking, and allowing dogs in rental properties,” she said.