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Active Voice: Man's Best Friend Friendly to Fitness

Active Voice is an periodic column by ACSM experts in science, medicine, and allied health. The viewpoints expressed do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM. This commentary is based on a presentation at the 2010 ACSM Annual Meeting.

Loretta DiPietro, Ph.D., M.P.H., FACSM, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Exercise Science within The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C. Her research focus includes the effects of exercise on insulin sensitivity and glycemic control in aging.

Regular physical activity is a key counter-measure against excessive weight gain and consequent risk of numerous chronic conditions. However, most American adults do not meet the recommended federal physical activity guidelines of at least 150 minutes of activity per week. An innovative approach to promoting a more active lifestyle among the population may be to incorporate dog walking into the daily routine. In 2007, there were approximately 72 million dogs owned as pets in the United States, with 37 percent of households owning at least one dog. Given these statistics, as well as the fact that walking is the most prevalent physical activity reported worldwide, the public health impact of including dogs into a regular walking program appears substantial.

Most of the studies describing the benefits of dog ownership to health have focused on the modulating influence of various psychosocial factors such as bonding, stress reduction and social interaction. Only recently have investigators considered the relationship between dog ownership and physical activity levels. Because dog owners have a responsibility to care for the health of their animal, dog walking could be considered a purposeful activity, thereby serving to promote a habitual pattern of daily activity. Not surprisingly, descriptive studies performed in the United States, Australia, Canada and Japan all report a positive relationship between dog ownership and physical activity. There also now is evidence that dog walkers are significantly more active, with lower body weight, and lower odds of several inactivity-related chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and dyslipidemia, compared with those who do not own or do not walk their own dog.

Interestingly, there appear to be health benefits specific to the activity pattern of dog walking – that is, a pattern characterized by frequent bouts of low- to moderate-intensity ambulation with several intervals of standing. Indeed, the metabolic health benefits of simply breaking up prolonged sedentary time with short bouts of lower-intensity activity have been described among adults responding to the 2004-2005 Australian Diabetes, Obesity, and Lifestyle study. This lower-intensity activity, along with standing, appears quite effective in interrupting key molecular deregulatory patterns associated with prolonged sitting (e.g., low muscle lipoprotein lipase [LPL] activity).

Because of the many health benefits associated with dog walking, it should be encouraged within communities as part of a plan for promoting and sustaining a healthy lifestyle. Even the most committed couch potato can now feel encouraged with the evidence pertaining to the importance of short, yet frequent bouts of this lower-intensity activity – especially in the company of his or her “best friend.”


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