Doctors should consider recommending dog ownership to older people under “exercise on prescription” schemes to encourage healthy living, according to a new study.
Taking the dog out for a walk may boost older people's activity levels whatever the weather and takes an average of 30 minutes off their daily sitting time, research in the British Medical Journal suggests.
Between September 2006 and December 2011, a sample of 3,123 adults aged between 49 and 91 (average age 69.5), were asked to wear a pedometer for seven consecutive days during waking hours, and provide information on regular physical activity. They were also asked whether they owned a dog, and if so, how often they took it for a walk.
Regular dog walkers were less active on rainy than on dry days, but they were still more active on these days than people who didn’t own a dog. Regular dog walkers were also more active even on the shortest days.
Their physical activity levels were typically 20 per cent higher, and they spent 30 fewer minutes every day sitting down than people who didn’t own dogs.
The researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia conclude that dog ownership “may have considerable potential to support the maintenance of physical activity in older adults and could form part of exercise on prescription schemes”.
“Our findings hint at the important additional role of extrinsic motivation, in this case the need for the dog to be exercised even in poor weather,” the researchers write.
They acknowledge that older adults’ health or living conditions might limit their opportunities to walk a dog to boost their physical activity levels.
They write: “In cases where dog ownership is not possible but where the functional status allows, dog walking opportunities for older adults who do not own a dog could be organised by local community organisations or charities, and dog walking groups may provide wider wellbeing benefits associated with increased social contact.”
Age Action said it would welcome dog walking community schemes in Ireland, describing them as “an innovative and low cost approach” to try to encourage physical activity and assist older people who struggling with social isolation.
Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communications at Age Action said: “I think there is a lot of merit to exploring that idea.
“One of the challenges we face in terms of trying to improve the physical health of older people is what we do to get them out and about, things out there like ‘Go for Life’, games and hobbies that are specifically designed for older people but they’ve been quite difficult to access.
“They’re not available everywhere whereas you can get a pet anywhere in the country. I do think, not only from a social isolation point, but also from a physical exercise perspective, it would benefit a lot of older people.”
The ISPCA’s Cara Programme is designed to promote pet ownership among older people, acknowledging the role pets can play as companions at home.
The scheme ensures that older people get a suitable pet to match their energy needs and that it is fully vaccinated, treated for parasites, neutered, micro-chipped and has a clean bill of health.
If the owner falls ill or dies, the ISPCA will take back the pet and secure a new home.
“Also through the Cara programme, we have a lot of volunteers who come in and they help out with the dogs and we do actually go into nursing homes with the dogs,” a spokeswoman for the ISPCA said.
“Again it really comes down to resources and who we would have available to do that but it’s a great incentive really. We would bring in some of our quieter dogs and absolutely it’s fantastic and always very welcomed.”