And yes, it really does count as exercise, researchers say.
In a new study that will likely be no surprise to any devoted pet parent, dog owners walked about 20 minutes more every day—and took 2,760 additional steps—compared to people who didn’t have a canine companion at home. But here’s the real good news: That extra exercise was done at a moderate pace, which means it could help adults meet their recommended weekly totals for physical activity.
The research, published in BMC Public Health, focused on adults 65 and older, who tend to be less active than younger people. But previous studies involving people of all ages have also associated pavement-pounding benefits (not to mention other health perks) with owning dogs or walking them on a regular basis.
The study included 43 dog owners and 43 non-dog owners, all of whom wore activity trackers and were monitored continuously for three week-long periods over the course of a year. When they compared the two groups, the researchers found that dog ownership was associated with a “large, potentially health improving effect,” they wrote in their paper.
Dog owners walked about 23 minutes longer each day than non-dog owners, 119 minutes versus 96 minutes on average. They also took an additional 2,760 steps, and had eight fewer continuous periods of sitting down. (Total time spent sitting and standing was similar for both groups.)
Most of that extra walking was done at a moderate cadence, defined as 100 or more steps a minute. Dog owners walked at this brisk pace for 32 minutes a day, versus just 11 minutes a day for non-dog owners.
The World Health Organization recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week. This increased walking time alone could just about satisfy that requirement, say the researchers—so it makes total sense that 87% of dog owners in the study met these guidelines, versus just 47% of non-dog owners.
Co-author Nancy Gee, PhD, human-animal interaction research manager at U.K.’s Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition, says that pet ownership may help older adults get more activity or maintain their current activity level for a longer period of time. This “could improve their prospects for a better quality of life, improved or maintained cognition, and perhaps, even overall longevity,” she said in a press release.
Waltham, the research branch of Mars Petcare (which owns 39 brands of pet food and products), funded the research. Because it was an observational study and not a randomized clinical trial, it could not determine whether dog ownership actually caused people to be more active, or whether more active people are simply more likely to own dogs. And since the participants were all volunteers—and were all white, British, and 65 or older—the authors say their findings may not apply to the general public.
But this is also one of the first studies that’s compared dog owners and non-dog owners using activity trackers, rather than self-reported (and often unreliable) exercise data. And because exercising with dogs can theoretically involve walking slowly and stopping frequently, the researchers say their findings on moderate activity were especially encouraging.
The authors concluded that health professionals might consider encouraging dog ownership—or shared care of a dog—to promote physical activity in older adults, when appropriate. Here at Health, we’ll add that caring for pets has been shown to have plenty of other physical and mental health benefits, as well. As animal lovers ourselves, we’re happy to add one more to the list.