When I used to exercise with a friend of mine it went something like this: meet at coffee shop, grab to-go coffee, walk to track, “stretch” (also known as gossip) for 45 minutes while drinking coffee, jog for 15 minutes, head to diner for breakfast. I loved the girlfriend-time, but the physical fitness certainly suffered. Maybe we should have been making a running date with a dog instead of a latte.
According to a story published in The New York Times this week, new research from the University of Missouri has found that people who walk dogs are more consistent about regular exercise and show more improvement in fitness than people who walk with a human companion. And the results weren’t based on people who cared for dogs and were required to take them out for daily walks. In the 12-week study of 54 older adults, 35 people were assigned to a walking program for five days a week, while the remaining 19 served as a control group. Among the walkers, 23 selected a friend or spouse to serve as a regular walking partner, another 12 participants took a bus daily to a local animal shelter where they were assigned a dog to walk.
The researchers were surprised to find that the dog walkers showed an impressive improvement in fitness, while the human walkers leaned towards making excuses to avoid the workout. Walking speed among the dog walkers increased by a whopping 28 percent, compared with just a 4 percent increase among the human walkers. I’m not too sure what this has to say for human companionship, but as for the dogs? Score one.
“What happened was nothing short of remarkable,” said Rebecca A. Johnson, a nursing professor and director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “The improvement in walking speed means their confidence in their walking ability had increased and their balance had increased. To have a 28 percent improvement in walking speed is mind boggling.”
According to the Times post, the participants were given the choice of walking with a human or a dog as the companion. Ms. Johnson said the dog walkers were far more consistent in sticking with the program than those who were walking with humans.
“In the human walking group, they were regularly discouraging each other from walking,” she said. “Missouri is a hot state. We would hear them saying: ‘It’s hot today. I don’t want to walk, do you?” Yet the response from the walkers in the dog-walking group was very different.
“When the people came to the animal shelter, they bounced off the bus and said, ‘Where’s my dog?” Ms. Johnson said. “And the dogs never gave any discouragement from walking.” Ms. Johnson said she suspects differences will show up in other areas, like depression and anxiety, although that data are still under review and the final study has not yet been published.
So what’s your take? Do you use dog-walking time for exercise? Or do you have better success being motivated by a human companion?