When Jacqueline Epping first told her colleagues she was interested in using dog walking to promote health, they weren’t always on board.
“The first reaction that I would get from people a lot of times was, ‘are you kidding?’” Epping, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Physical Activity and Health Branch, told an overflow crowd at Monday's “Benefits of the Human-Animal Interaction” session.
But in the past decade, a growing body of literature shows a strong relationship between dog walking and health.
“Dogs can and do increase physical activity, and we even see some secondary health benefits,” Epping said.
The body of knowledge around dog walking is “relatively young,” she said, but there is a “robust body of evidence” as to the health benefits of pets, including lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mental health, speedier recovery, increased longevity after a heart attack and improved quality of life among older adults, just to name a few.
Ann Toohey, a PhD student at the University of Calgary, talked of a study she participated in that found frequent dog walkers were more than 10 times more likely to meet the recommended guideline of 150 minutes of weekly physical activity and twice as likely to report feeling a sense of community.
Rebecca Johnson, a University of Missouri professor and co-author of such books as “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” and “The Health Benefits of Dog Walking for Pets & People,” said her research has found dog walking led to increased walking speed for older adults.
How do dogs help their owners stay active?
“A dog sitting at the front door with a lead in its mouth can create expectations, as well as being a walking buddy, if you will, a companion,” Epping said.
Dog walking can also be a catalyst for environmental and policy changes to improve the walkability of our communities. Sounds like a win-win.
Epping coordinates the International Dog Walking and Activity Group and invites fellow public healthers to join the informal group that shares research findings and funding opportunities by e-mailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Johnson would love to see some of you at the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations meeting this July in Chicago.
Illustration courtesy iStockphoto