Staying active as we age is important to all of us because it can mean the difference between living our lives independently and needing outside help. Now, scientists have discovered one way to help you feel as spry as you were 10 years ago: care for a dog.
The research, which was conducted by scientists at St Andrews University in Scotland and is published this month in the journal Preventative Medicine, assessed the mental and physical wellbeing of 547 pensioners with an average age of 79 from the Scottish city of Dundee and the surrounding area. Among the sample, nine percent or about 50 people owned a dog. Of those, about 75 percent said they walked their dogs regularly.
Previous studies have found a range of benefits in pet ownership, notably people who own dogs tend to be fitter, have lower blood pressure and often report being happier than their non-dog owning counterparts while also tending to score higher on measures of mental wellbeing. However, this new research is the first study of its kind to specifically look into how pet ownership might affect over-65s.
Researchers asked the entire group to wear a monitor which would assess their levels of physical activity.
The results were quite pronounced but with a key caveat: it’s dog walking and not just dog ownership that seems to be really beneficial. Not only were the dog walkers more physically active than those who didn’t own a dog or walk their dog (on average, by 12 percent), they tended to have activity levels that were roughly equivalent to people 10 years younger than them.
Other interesting things to emerge from this study included that, when the test sample were given standard mood analysis tests, dog walkers and dog owners were likely to have significantly better scores on things like lower anxiety and lower levels of depression.
While more research will need to be done in this area, the scientists believe that dogs provide the elderly with a reason to exercise that eschews the need for self-motivation: a dog has to be walked daily (at least) and therefore, often even in bad weather, dog owners will venture out to make sure their canine pals get the exercise they need, and at the same time are getting exercise themselves, too.
Lead researcher Dr Zhiqiang Feng is quoted as saying: “Our results suggest that dog ownership may motivate personal activity and enable older people to overcome many potential barriers such as lack of social support, inclement weather and concerns over personal safety.”
Previous research has shown that these barriers can be significant problems for the elderly in particular, and solutions have not been easy to come by due to a range of factors, including the cumulative effects of a sedentary lifestyle, as well as higher levels of depression and anxiety among the elderly which themselves act as barriers to remaining physically fit.
So what to take from this research? Doctor Feng believes it may be time to consider how we might capitalize on the dog and guardian relationship, suggesting it may be time for “dog loaning” as a public health initiative whereby people might sign-up to walk dogs for people who no longer can or don’t have time through the day.
Doctor Feng’s suggestion sounds very interesting, but could we be a bit more ambitious?
For instance, we know there are many dogs waiting for their forever homes in shelters across the United States. Could programs be designed that would help the elderly who are no longer able to have a dog full-time (due to a variety of reasons including their current place of residence which may not allow for new pets) still have the companionship of dog ownership by “renting” a dog for exercise and play?
This way, and for only a small but regular payment, elderly people might still get the exercise they need to keep them fit and healthy for longer, and they can also enrich the lives of dogs who are currently in between homes.
Whatever way this program is eventually implemented, one thing seems sure: that the limits of how our relationships with other animals might enrich us certainly has not been reached yet.
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