"Dog owners who don't walk their dog are missing a great opportunity to get physical activity and stay healthy," says researcher Cindy Lentino, MS, an exercise scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.
"If you walk your dog just 30 minutes a day, you can meet national recommendations for physical activity," she tells WebMD.
You don't have to look far to find a canine exercise buddy: About 72 million dogs have a place to call home in the U.S. and many more live in shelters, foster homes, and with rescue groups.
The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in Baltimore.
Lentino says she got the idea for the study, which was part of her master's thesis, after hearing a presentation about the relationship between dog ownership and physical activity at a previous ACSM meeting.
"I wanted to go beyond that and look at health variables among people who walk their dogs, dog owners who don't walk their dogs, and people without dogs," Lentino says.
The study involved 916 healthy people, about three-fourths of whom were women, with an average age of 40.
A total of 380 didn't own dogs, 399 were dog owners who walked their dogs, and 137 were dog owners who did not walk their dogs.
All the study participants filled out detailed online surveys with more than 35 questions on physical activity and physical and mental health. Responses were matched against goals set by the government's Healthy People 2010 imitative.
Dog Walkers More Physically Fit
Compared with participants who regularly walked their four-legged pals, dog owners who didn't walk their pets:
Were 58% more likely to be overweight or underweight.
Were substantially less likely to meet the ACSM/American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines for physical activity, which call for moderately intense cardio exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. That means working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat, yet still being able to carry on a conversation.
Spent about 30 more minutes sitting around every day, on average.
Were more than twice as likely to have high blood pressure.
When matched against people who didn't own a dog, the dog walkers:
Just owning a dog was associated with better social support systems, Lentino says.
AHA spokesman Barry Franklin, PhD, director of preventive cardiology at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., tells WebMD that several studies have shown that heart disease patients who have dogs have a better prognosis.
For healthy or sick people that otherwise sit around, dog walking "can be a stimulus for physical conditioning," he says.
Franklin says his dachshund lived to be 17, "which I attribute to our 4-mile walks every day. When it comes to talking walks, you benefit and your dog does, too."
This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.